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New York’s Hakeem Jeffries announces historic bid to lead House Democrats after Pelosi

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries gesturing while talking with reporters
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) talks with reporters on Thursday after announcing his bid to become House Democratic leader — which would make him the first Black person to helm a major political party in Congress.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
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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 House Democratic leader — which would make him the first Black person to helm a major political party in Congress.

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 within a divided Congress and seeks to win back the majority that House Republicans narrowly seized in the midterm election.

“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,” he said.

Along with Pelosi, the other top House Democrats — Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina — also announced their intentions to step down from leadership. All three are in their 80s.

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A new generation wasted no time preparing to take their place. Along with Jeffries, Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of Redlands — who have worked together as a lower-rung leadership team — swiftly wrote to tell colleagues they were seeking the second- and third-ranking positions in House Democratic leadership. Jeffries and Clark are in their 50s, and Aguilar is 43.

The trio has been working together for years to prepare for this moment, aiming to engineer a smooth transition when Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn decided to step down.

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 in a statement Friday.

House Democrats will meet behind closed doors as a caucus in two weeks, after the Thanksgiving holiday, to select their leaders. Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar had no stated challengers as of Friday.

The Brooklyn-born Jeffries has long been seen as a charismatic 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 the House, serving in the party’s fifth-highest position as chair of the 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 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 the Pelosi and her team make way for a new era.

Carl Heastie, a Democrat and the first Black speaker of the New York State Assembly, bonded with Jeffries on the campaign trail two decades ago over their love of hip-hop.

“Hakeem had that ‘it’ factor,” Heastie said. “He stands out in the room.”

If Jeffries is chosen as minority leader, Democrats in both chambers of Congress will be led by men from Brooklyn — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a Brooklyn native, lives near Jeffries and his wife and two sons.

Jeffries’ 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.

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“Another glass ceiling broken,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said of 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 retired rather than face what was expected to be a tough primary challenge from Jeffries.

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, Jeffries attended public schools in New York City before graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied political science. He then received a master’s degree 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 but unsuccessful back-to-back attempts, starting in 2000, to unseat longtime Democratic state Assemblyman Roger Green.

New York Atty. Gen. 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 at the Capitol 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 questioned under the controversial stop-and-frisk tactic, even for those who were released without charges.

Jeffries continued that work in Congress. After the 2014 police chokehold death in New York of Eric Garner, a Black man whose gasps of “I can’t breathe!” became a national rallying cry against police brutality, Jeffries sought to pass legislation that would make the chokehold a federal crime.

James, who rose up through the same Brooklyn Democratic political circles as Jeffries and worked with him on affordable housing when she was on the City Council, said she reached out to him 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.

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