11 min read

Meet Hakeem Jeffries

Here’s what you should know about the first Black congressional leader in U.S. history.
Meet Hakeem Jeffries

Good morning! It’s Thursday, December 1, 2022. The Georgia runoff is five days away. The 2024 elections are 705 days away.

Happy December! One of my goals with Wake Up To Politics is always to introduce you to the power players in Washington and make sure you’re familiar with the people behind the headlines.

This morning, I want to do that with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the new House Democratic leader; hopefully, you’ll learn a thing or two about him so you’re not caught off-guard when you start seeing his name pop up a bunch in January.

I also want to call your attention to the “What your leaders are doing today” section. There are a lot of good details in there today: you’ll learn everything from the menu for tonight’s state dinner to why the Senate Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over cryptocurrency to the two bipartisan bills being voted on in the House today.

Where else can you find all that in one place? That section takes a lot of time to put together, but I always find out something new about what’s going on here in Washington and I hope you do too. If you appreciate the time it takes to do it, it’s always appreciated if you set up a recurring donation to WUTP or make a onetime contribution. Now, let’s dive in!

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A primer on Hakeem Jeffries, the new top House Democrat

For the first time in 20 years, the House Democrats have chosen a new leader.

82-year-old Nancy Pelosi — and her two octogenarian deputies — formally stepped aside Wednesday in favor of a new generation of Democrats, led by 52-year-old Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

In a departure from the messy leadership fights of the past, Jeffries was unanimously elected by his Democratic colleagues to serve as House Minority Leader in the next Congress, seamlessly carrying out a long-awaited transition of power.

Jeffries will make history in January as the first Black lawmaker to lead either party in either chamber of Congress. Here’s a guide to what else you should know about the new top Democrat:

— In an institution that values seniority, Jeffries rose quickly through the ranks. He was first elected to the House in 2012, taking just 10 years to go from a freshman member to the chamber’s most powerful Democrat. He is not new to leadership, however, having been elected Congressional Black Caucus whip in 2014, before becoming co-chair of the House Democratic policy committee in 2017 and then House Democratic caucus chair in 2019.

At 52, Jeffries will be the youngest of the “Four Corners” in the new Congress, alongside (most likely) 57-year-old top House Republican Kevin McCarthy, 72-year-old top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, and 80-year-old top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell.

— He came as part of a package deal. Jeffries has quietly been planning an ascension with incoming House Democratic whip Katherine Clark and incoming House Democratic caucus chair Pete Aguilar for years, allowing them to leapfrog Steny Hoyer, the longtime No. 2 Democrat, and Jim Clyburn, the No. 3, with broad support from the caucus.

Per Politico, the trio has privately referred to themselves as the “kids table” for the last two years, working as a team behind the scenes to build relationships and woo their colleagues. Together, they have buy-in from all the key Democratic constituencies, as the Washington Post notes: Jeffries from the Congressional Black Caucus and moderates, Clark from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Aguilar from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Their election marks the first time that a white man will not be found in a congressional party’s top three spots.

From left: Katherine Clark, Hakeem Jeffries, and Pete Aguilar. (Instagram)

— Both top Democrats in Congress will now be from the same New York borough. Jeffries and Schumer were both born and bred in Brooklyn; they now live just a handful of blocks from each other. It will be the first time since the 1950s that a party has been led in the House and Senate by lawmakers from the same state, much less the same county.

“It’s not surprising that House Democrats are turning to someone from Brooklyn to lead the way next year,” Schumer said Wednesday on the Senate floor, “because when you’re from Brooklyn, you learn quickly traits like persistence and serious mettle.”

— Jeffries’ signature legislative accomplishment was a partnership with Donald Trump. Jeffries was a lead Democratic author of the bipartisan First Step Act, the major criminal justice reform package signed into law by Trump in 2018. (The former president has largely distanced himself from the measure since then.)

During the Trump era, Jeffries also gained prominence for a very different reason: as one of the seven House managers in Trump’s first impeachment trial.

— He has received criticism for rejecting the 2016 election results. “The more we learn about 2016 the more ILLEGITIMATE it becomes,” Jeffries tweeted about the legitimately decided presidential race from his official account in 2018, two years after the election. “America deserves to know whether we have a FAKE President in the Oval Office.”

It was a theme Jeffries would repeatedly sound in his tweets throughout Trump’s presidency, leading several House Republicans to brand him an “election denier” after his selection Wednesday. (Jeffries did not object to the certification of the 2016 presidential results, unlike said Republicans in 2020.)

— Jeffries is known for quoting hip-hop lyrics. He even did so in as sober a setting as the Trump impeachment trial: “And if you don’t know, now you know,” he said at one point, in homage to a lyric by The Notorious B.I.G. In 2019, Jeffries nominated Pelosi as House speaker by declaring that Democrats are “down with NDP,” an allusion to the Naughty By Nature song “Down with OPP.”

So don’t be surprised if you hear any familiar lyrics being quoted by the new Democratic leader next year.

What to watch: Three relationships with Jeffries to keep an eye on

Congressional leadership is all about relationships: with your own members, with the opposition, with the White House, with any number of interest groups and constituencies seeking to hold sway.

As a congressional leader, you have to be able to hold all of these in your head at once in order to keep your party united and advance your priorities. Here are three relationships of Jeffries’ that I’ll be keeping my eye on:

1) With progressive Democrats. Although they supported him on Wednesday, Jeffries’ relationship with the left-most flank of his party has historically been rocky at best. He has repeatedly rankled progressives with quotes dinging them to the press: “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” Jeffries told The Atlantic in 2019, for example.

Jeffries also created a PAC last year dedicated solely to protecting Democratic incumbents from primary challenges, butting heads in some races with progressive members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a onetime incumbent-slayer herself).

Per Axios, the new leader has already begun working to mend fences, recently sitting down with a slew of leading House progressives. But it will be interesting to watch where the relationships go next, and whether Jeffries manages to keep his wide-ranging caucus united. Asked if Jeffries is someone she can work with, Ocasio-Cortez told Axios: “I think that’s something we’ll learn.”

2) With Kevin McCarthy. In this case, saying “lack of a relationship” might be more appropriate. Jeffries has frequently spoken of McCarthy, likely to be his counterpart as the top House Republican, with disdain: “With respect to Kevin McCarthy, does anyone take this guy seriously on any issue — particularly as it relates to ethics?” he said in January.

But, if McCarthy is elected speaker, the two will have to find a way to work to run the House together, as there are several key votes — on issues like funding the government or raising the debt ceiling — that will likely require their cooperation.

Jeffries told CNN last week that he hasn’t spoken to McCarthy “recently” but that he has a “much warmer relationship” with the No. 2 House Republican, Steve Scalise.

Hakeem Jeffries and Nancy Pelosi. (Facebook)

3) With Nancy Pelosi. Personally, this might be the one I’m most intrigued by. Pelosi is breaking the mold by staying in the House after leaving the speakership — but as a rank-and-file member, not a member of leadership. That’s a break from most recent speakers, and it will be interesting to see how it works in practice. What will it be like for the most powerful speaker since the days of Sam Rayburn to simply drop it all and become a backbencher?

Especially since she is remaining in the House, Pelosi will undoubtedly serve as an important adviser for Jeffries, with two decades of experience under her belt shepherding House Democrats. But they will also have to avoid the perception that she’s the power behind the throne: Jeffries will have no credibility if, when things get tough, he simply turns to Pelosi to keep the party in line. The two could end up engaged in an awkward dance; whether Pelosi, a self-described workaholic, will be able to surrender her considerable power and avoid stepping on Jeffries’ toes remains an open question.

So far, though, the transition has been clean. In a statement on Wednesday, Pelosi said the Jeffries-Clark-Aguilar troika would “reinvigorate our caucus with their new energy, ideas, and perspective.” In return, Jeffries led Democrats in awarding her with an honorary title for the new Congress: “Speaker Emerita.” We’ll see if he has to remind her of the “emerita” part from time to time.

🚨 What else you should know

— Railroad labor deal: The House voted 290-137 on Wednesday to pass a bill averting a national rail worker strike by enforcing the terms of a labor agreement mediated by the Biden administration. The measure was backed by 79 Republicans and all but eight Democrats.

The chamber also approved a companion bill adding seven days of paid leave to the agreement; the vote was 221-207, with three Republicans and all Democrats in support. Both measures will now go to the Senate, which could take them up as soon as today.

Trump probes: The IRS handed over six years of former President Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, after a Supreme Court decision last week put an end to a yearslong legal battle. Lawmakers have not said if they will release any of the tax returns to the public.  

— Economy: “Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell provided a clear signal that the central bank is on track to raise interest rates by a half percentage point at its next meeting, stepping down from an unprecedented series of four 0.75-point rate rises aimed at combating high inflation.” WSJ

Fed chair Jerome Powell testifying before Congress in 2018. (Federal Reserve)

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing (8 am) and then welcome President Emmanuel Macron of France to the White House for the first official state visit of the Biden administration.

Biden and Macron will participate in a formal arrival ceremony (9 am), meet in the Oval Office (10 am), hold a joint press conference (11:45 am), pose for a photo-op (7:30 pm), and break bread at Biden’s first state dinner since taking office (8:50 pm).

While close allies, the two presidents have clashed at various points as they wrestle for leadership of the Western alliance, on issues including an Australia submarine deal, how to end the war in Ukraine, and subsidies in Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act.

  • More details: The state dinner will feature a performance by New Orleans-bred musician Jon Batiste. For those wondering what one serves when the president of France comes to town, here’s tonight’s menu — including 200 lobsters that were flown in (live!) from Maine and the first cheese from the U.S. to win the World Cheese Competition:

Vice President Harris will join Biden for the Macron arrival ceremony and the state dinner, while also co-hosting a state luncheon for Macron at the State Department with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (1:10 pm).

First Lady Biden will join her husband for the arrival ceremony, the photo-op with Macron, and the state dinner. She’ll also host French First Lady Brigitte Macron for a tour of Planet Word, an interactive museum of language in Washington, D.C. (10:30 am). They’ll be joined by local public school students enrolled in a French immersion program.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has no briefing scheduled today, since the president is holding a press conference.

Legislative Branch

The Senate will convene (10 am) and has two votes scheduled: cloture votes to advance district judge nominee Jerry Blackwell and circuit judge nominee Doris Pryor.

Additional votes are possible, including on the rail labor deal.

The House will convene (12 pm) and vote on two pieces of legislation with bipartisan support:

  • The One Stop Shop Community Reentry Program Act, which authorizes the Justice Department to provide $10 million in grants to eligible non-profits to fund “community reentry centers” across the country. Such centers would offer job training, mental health services, and other resources for people returning to their communities after being incarcerated.
  • The Pregnant Women in Custody Act, which strives to improve care for pregnant inmates in federal prisons. Changes would include establishing minimum standards for their health care, requiring they be offered prenatal education, and preventing women in the third trimester from being placed in solitary confinement.

Committee hearings will include a Senate Agriculture hearing with Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Rostin Behnam on the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX and possible room for congressional action in response (10 am).

Congressional leaders from both parties and both chambers will meet with Macron (3 pm). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will also hold her weekly press conference, her first public remarks since Hakeem Jeffries was chosen as her successor (10:45 am).

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court has nothing on its schedule today.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s a fun story, in keeping with today’s newsletter theme: My first time ever on national TV was in 2014, on Steve Kornacki’s erstwhile MSNBC show “Up.” (Shoutout to any of you who have been subscribed since then! Eight years!)

They flew my mom and 12-year-old me out to New York so I could appear on the show in-studio. Needless to say, I was fairly nervous... but perhaps not as much as her. Luckily, while I was on the show, there was someone to keep her company in the green room — and calm her nerves: Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, then a freshman congressman, who was going on next.

Jeffries quite literally held her hand while she watched the show backstage, repeatedly whispering to her: “It’s gonna be OK, mom.”

Here’s the text I received from her yesterday:

He’ll be House Minority Leader, actually, but far be it from me to fact-check my own mother.

👍 Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe