Brooklyn is in the House; in fact, it’ll be leading the House’s minority faction come next year, as Crown Heights–born Rep. Hakeem Jeffries takes over from Nancy Pelosi as head of the House Democrats, just in time to be relegated to minority leader status as the party passes control over to the Republicans. That’ll mean the Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress will not only be from NYC, but from the same borough, as Jeffries will join Brooklynite and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Over the years, we’ve all gotten a decent sense of Schumer, but who is Jeffries? The 52-year-old congressman isn’t exactly an unknown — he served six years in the State Assembly before being elected to Congress in 2012 — but he’s not a household name and has risen relatively quickly through the ranks of Democratic leadership. Given the median age of elected House members, he’s practically a spring chicken, at age 52.
More importantly than his age or his borough are his approach to politics and own leanings, and so with that in mind, let’s have a little bit of a primer, particularly given that, if the Democrats retake the House anytime in the near future — and let’s remember that the Republicans will be controlling the House by a margin of fewer than 10 seats — then Jeffries is likely to be speaker.
The primary thing to understand about Jeffries is he’s generally not driven primarily by ideology, which in itself is somewhat notable in what is an increasingly hyper-polarized political environment. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an ideology, and in fact was known 20 years ago as a progressive legislator, but he has moderated over time and is far from a purist. He would rather work with what moderates remain in both parties than make common cause with the more firebrand contemporary progressive as characterized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though he is very intentional about giving everyone the impression that he is at least hearing them out and processing the information.
You may notice that most descriptions of the man will note that he’s “calculating” or “cerebral” or something like that, which seems like an odd way to describe someone ascending to the height of political influence, yet that’s where his true influence comes from. Jeffries has learned to hoover in information and build connections with disparate groups and political constituencies but always keeps his cards close to the vest, which makes him somewhat of a vexing character for people who just want to know what he stands for, darn it.
To his critics, this is the mark of a political operator with little in the way of convictions who would sell his grandmother to move ahead and pass legislation. To his supporters, it signifies a measured and consensus-building approach that keeps him mobile through different constituencies and doesn’t unnecessarily burn bridges when important legislation can be better enacted through what is akin to political chess. In any case, it gives little surface area to attack him, except for the fact itself that he’s too guarded.
It is undeniable that he has been an effective lieutenant to outgoing Speaker Pelosi in wrangling votes, with the criticism not being that he can’t get the legislation through so much as that it is not ambitious enough, or makes too many compromises. There’s no doubt that Jeffries’ governing philosophy will be similar to Pelosi’s rather than some radical sea change, in that he will approach things with the end goal of getting things passed, even if they’re not particularly revolutionary. That philosophy is likely to extend to not only the legislative but political tasks of a conference leader, i.e. how to ensure that the Democrats regain the majority and if possible hang on to the presidency and the Senate.
Some observers expect that Jeffries will feel more comfortable throwing his weight behind more moderate Democrats in the great internal struggle over the party’s trajectory, which in turn would mean aligning himself against younger progressive challengers of a type that has become increasingly prominent in national electoral politics over the least several years, spearheaded by people like AOC and the rest of the so-called squad. Jeffries is the type to maintain lines of dialogue open with this wing of the party, but when push comes to shove, align himself with the moderates that have propelled his rise so far. Still, there’s not too much data yet on how exactly he will lead, and he might surprise everyone. We’ll have to see come next year.