Briefing

Who is Hakeem Jeffries? What you should know about Pelosi's likely successor.

Meet the New York congressman on the cusp of becoming the most powerful Democrat in the House

As outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi prepares to step back from the top leadership position she's held for decades, all eyes turn now to Hakeem Jeffries, the 52-year-old New York City representative poised to become the first Black lawmaker to lead a major political party in congressional history.

In a "dear colleagues" letter sent to congressional Democrats on Friday morning, Jeffries officially launched his bid to replace Pelosi, writing that "building upon my leadership experience and our shared journey, I look forward to creating a better future for all Americans and humbly ask for your support." 

In addition to backing Jeffries publicly as part of "a new day [...] dawning" for the party, Pelosi has reportedly worked behind the scenes with her caucus to ensure he has an unobstructed path in her wake. Other members of the outgoing Democratic House leadership team have thrown their weight behind Jeffries as well, with outgoing Whip Rep. James Clyburn tweeting his support for "our new generation of Democratic Leaders, which I hope to be Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar," and party Leader Steny Hoyer writing his colleagues with a "strong endorsement to Hakeem Jeffries for Democratic leader, a role in which he will make history for the institution of the House and for our country."

So who is Hakeem Jeffries, and what might the future of the House Democrats look like under his leadership? 

A native New Yorker who worked his way up through local politics

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Jeffries boasts that he is "a product New York City's public school system, having graduated from Midwood High School" before getting a B.A. in Political Science from Binghamton University, then a Master of Public Policy from Georgetown University, and finally a J.D. from the New York University School of Law. He worked in corporate law for several years before entering into politics with a series of unsuccessful runs for the New York State Assembly. Finally, in 2006, Jeffries was elected to represent the state's 57th Assembly District, where he quickly made a name for himself as a prospective national figure in part for successfully authoring and pushing through a bill to do away with the NYPD's stop-and-frisk database.

in 2012, Jeffries declared he would run for congressional office to represent New York's 8th District, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens, declaring pointedly that "Washington is broken. Congress is dysfunctional. People are suffering. We deserve more." He won his election handily with more than 70 percent of the general election vote and was sworn into Congress the following year. 

A "rising star" in the national party

Dubbed a "rising star" just one year into his term, Jeffries' time in office has been marked by a meteoric ascension through the party ranks. In 2014, he was unanimously voted whip of the Congressional Black Caucus, and four years later, he defeated California Rep. Barbara Lee, whose tenure predated his by more than a decade, to become the Democratic Caucus chair — a step that led fellow New York Congressman Gregory Meeks to declare Jeffries "the present and the future" of the party. That same year it became clear that Democratic leadership was grooming Jeffries as a potential replacement, with both Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer going out of their way to single the congressman out in their conversations about where the party could go in the coming years. 

What kind of congressman has he been? 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an ascending party leader, Jeffries has largely staked out a centrist position in regards to the Democrats' major policy priorities: He's sponsored bills focused on criminal justice reform, affordable medication access, and drug policy. He has been conspicuously hawkish on the United States' relationship with Israel, declaring that "when you live in a tough neighborhood, Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength," and criticizing the Obama administration for not vetoing a United Nations resolution calling for Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank. In 2020, in another sign of his being groomed for party leadership, Jeffries was tapped as one of the impeachment managers in the House's first impeachment of then-President Donald Trump, and was dubbed the Democrats' "messaging guru" for being, as The New York Times stated, "as likely to quote from the Bible as he is from 1990s hip-hop lyrics.

What kind of party leader would he be?

As Jeffries makes clear in his letter announcing his intent to run for party leadership, he has three major "operating principles" he's relying upon: empowering every member, prioritizing security, and reclaiming the majority. Of those three, the first and third are clearly nods to the nuts and bolts of congressional leadership — building both intra-party coalitions, and reassuming the congressional majority. His second principle, however, is both an acknowledgment of the post-Jan. 6 reality of increased violence toward lawmakers themselves, as well as a hint that under his leadership, the party would focus on criminal justice and public safety legislation at large.

In his closing message to the party, he states unambiguously that "we can unify around an agenda designed to make life better for everyday Americans from all walks of life, and simultaneously embrace issues of social justice consistent with the promise of the Constitution."

Democrats are scheduled to hold their leadership elections on Nov. 30. 

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