WASHINGTON – A day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would step aside, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York launched a history-making bid Friday to become the first Black person to helm a major political party in Congress as leader of the House Democrats.
In a letter to colleagues, Jeffries gave a nod to the “legendary figures” before him: Pelosi, the first female speaker in U.S. history, and her leadership team. He encouraged his fellow House members to embrace a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to unleash their “full potential as a team.” And he pledged to draw on the diverse Democratic caucus as it works to govern in a divided Congress and win back the majority after House Republicans narrowly seized control in the midterm elections.
“The House Democratic Caucus is the most authentic representation of the gorgeous mosaic of the American people,” Jeffries wrote.
“I write to humbly ask for your support for the position of House Democratic Leader as we once again prepare to meet the moment."
Along with Pelosi, the other top two House Democrats — Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the whip — also announced their intentions to step down from the top posts. All three are in their 80s. Clyburn is stepping down as whip but says he wants to remain in leadership.
A new generation wasted no time preparing to take their place. Along with Jeffries, Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California — who have worked together as a lower-rung leadership team — swiftly wrote to colleagues with their bids for the second- and third-ranking positions in House Democratic leadership. Jeffries and Clark are in their 50s, while Aguilar is in his 40s.
The trio has been working together for years, preparing for just this moment, seeking to engineer a smooth transition when Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn decided to leave.
Pelosi heartily backed the potential new leaders.
"It is with pride, gratitude and confidence in their abilities that I salute Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark and Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar for being ready and willing to assume this awesome responsibility," Pelosi said Friday in a statement.
House Democrats will meet behind closed doors as a caucus in two weeks, after the Thanksgiving holiday, to select their members. So far, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar have no stated challengers.
The Brooklyn-born Jeffries has long been seen as a charismatic new leader, known for his sharp but careful style, first in New York politics and then when he entered the national stage upon winning election to Congress in 2012.
A former corporate lawyer and state assemblyman, Jeffries has represented Brooklyn and parts of Queens for a decade and quickly rose through the ranks in Congress, serving as the party’s 5th-highest-ranking member as chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
"You could sense there was some purpose in him,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, recalling the quiet and pensive young lawmaker he first met decades go.
“He always seemed like a guy that was headed somewhere but was willing to pace himself to get there,” Sharpton said. “You meet a lot of people that are ambitious, that would do anything. You never got that impression from Hakeem.”
While Jeffries has been part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he's seen as a more moderate, business-friendly lawmaker who is sometimes at odds with the House's furthest-left members.
But his appeal rests in his political skill at a transformative time as Pelosi and her team make way for a new era.
Carl Heastie, a Democratic state lawmaker who became the first Black person to serve as the speaker of the New York State Assembly, bonded with Jeffries on the campaign trail two decades ago over a love of hip-hop.
“Hakeem had that ‘it’ factor,” Heastie said. “He stands out in the room."
If Jeffries is chosen to serve as the minority leader, the Democrats will be led in both chambers of Congress by men from Brooklyn — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn native, lives in a neighborhood near where Jeffries lives with his wife and two sons.
His district includes the Black cultural hub of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, home to Jackie Robinson and once represented by Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress.
The job of minority leader puts Jeffries in line to become speaker if Democrats regain House control.
“Another glass ceiling broken,” said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., about his colleague's rise. “I look forward to be able to call him speaker.”
Jeffries first won election to the House in 2012, replacing Democrat Edolphus Towns, who decided to retire instead of facing what was expected to be a tough primary challenge from Jeffries.
Growing up in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, Jeffries attended New York City public schools before graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied political science. He received a master’s in public policy from Georgetown University and a law degree from New York University.
He clerked for a federal judge and worked for several years at a New York City law firm and later as a corporate lawyer for CBS.
His first runs for public office were strong back-to-back but unsuccessful attempts to unseat longtime Democratic state Assemblyman Roger Green starting in 2000.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, who was Green’s campaign manager, said Jeffries was then “an up-and-coming insurgent” who “wanted to make his mark in central Brooklyn — and in fact, he did.”
When the seat opened in 2006, Jeffries won. He served six years in Albany, working on criminal justice and civil rights legislation.
He sponsored a law that stopped the New York Police Department from keeping a database of personal details of every person stopped and questioned under the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactic, even if the people were released and not charged with a crime.
He continued that work in Congress. After the 2014 chokehold death in New York of Eric Garner, a Black man whose gasps of “I can’t breathe!” became part a national rallying cry against police brutality, Jeffries sought to pass legislation that would make the chokehold maneuver a federal crime.
James, who rose up through the same Brooklyn Democratic political circles as Jeffries and worked with him on affordable housing issues when she was on the City Council, said she reached out to Jeffries on Thursday night.
“I texted him and urged him not to forget the residents of public housing we served," James said. "And he answered back and said, ‘Never.’”
Mascaro reported from Washington.