Hakeem Jeffries was elected on Wednesday to become the Democratic Party’s top leader in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in January, making him the first black American to hold such a high-ranking position in Congress.
The vote by Jeffries’ fellow Democrats also marked the rise of a younger generation of leaders in the 435-member House and the end of the Nancy Pelosi era. In 2007 she became the first woman to be elected House speaker.
Jeffries, a 52-year-old New Yorker, will hold the position of House Democratic leader for the 118th Congress that convenes on Jan. 3.
Shortly before the election result was announced, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said: “Hakeem Jeffries’ elevation as House Democratic leader is a turning point in the history of the United States.” Both men come from New York City’s Brooklyn borough.
When he formally announced his candidacy on Nov. 18, following a decade in the House, Jeffries pledged to preside over a caucus that would return power to committee members and give junior lawmakers more say in shaping legislation and being rewarded with high-profile positions.
“Meaningful policymaking and public engagement opportunities should be robustly distributed regardless of length of service,” Jeffries wrote in a letter to fellow Democrats.
The regime change for Democrats comes at a time when Republicans are set to take majority control of the House on as a result of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
That majority will be slim, with no more than a handful of seats.
Republicans and their leader Kevin McCarthy, who wants to become the next speaker, have put Democrats on notice that they will hit the ground running, launching investigations of administration officials and even President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
They also say they want deep cuts in spending after years of both parties paying little to no attention to rising budget deficits and a national debt that now exceeds $31.3 trillion. Tough new border security initiatives also rank high on the Republican agenda that Democrats will do battle over.
While they made tackling inflation the centerpiece of their 2022 congressional campaigns, Republicans, since narrowly winning control of the House, have said little about that subject.
OCTOGENARIANS TAKE BACKSEATS
Currently, the principal three House Democratic leadership jobs are held by octogenarians who have been in control for two decades: Pelosi, 82, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, and Majority Whip James Clyburn, 82.
They have been under pressure for years to give way to a younger generation.
The moment for that came after Republicans won the majority, but without the “red wave” of massive wins they had expected – a turn of events that buoyed Democrats.
Running for election as part of Jeffries’ team are Representative Katherine Clark, 59, who is seeking the No. 2 Democratic whip job, and Pete Aguilar, 43, who was elected to Jeffries’ current job of Democratic caucus chairman.
The three, representing districts in New York, Massachusetts and California, respectively, bring their own particular strengths to different segments of the Democratic caucus.
Clark has strong ties to House progressives, a group growing in influence, while Aguilar is seen as a bridge to more moderate Democrats and is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Jeffries is a member of the high-profile Congressional Black Caucus.
This leadership team, if elected, would have the luxury of learning on the job while in the minority, without all the pressure that majority status brings.
Pelosi, asked by reporters whether she will be on hand to advise that team, said, “Yeah,” if she is sought out.
Speaking to a small group of reporters on Nov. 17 just minutes after announcing her plan to leave leadership, Pelosi added: “I will not feel neglected if I’m not asked because I don’t remember asking anybody” upon ascending to leadership herself.