House Democrats on Wednesday elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) to head the party in the next Congress, marking a generational shift after 20 years under the reign of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) while making Jeffries the first Black figure to lead either party in Congress in the nation’s history.
The shift was no surprise. After Pelosi and her top deputies announced earlier in the month that they would step out of the top three leadership spots next year, Jeffries was one of three next-generation leaders who quickly swept in to solidify their place as uncontested contenders atop the party brass.
One of the other lawmakers, Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), was elected to serve as chair of the House Democratic Caucus after running unopposed. The third prong of the trio, Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), is poised to be chosen as the next Democratic whip on Wednesday. She is also running unopposed.
Clark will replace Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as the second-ranking Democrat next year, while Aguilar will fill the vacancy left by Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.) at the No. 3 spot.
None of the new leaders faced an opponent, creating the sense that Wednesday’s proceedings were more coronation than election.
That did nothing to temper the celebratory tone from Democrats.
Jeffries, for his part, insists he hasn’t had much time to reflect on the historic significance of his leadership role, saying he’s focused instead on the Democrats’ transition to the minority and “the solemn responsibility” he’s about to assume.
“The best thing that we can do as a result of the seriousness and solemnity of the moment, is lean in hard and do the best damn job that we can for people,” he said.
Other Democrats aren’t being so modest, particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus, where Jeffries’s rise is being cheered as another major milestone in the long hard fight for civil rights.
“As an African American, it sends a message out to this country that it’s time for real diversity and inclusion. And there are so many people of color who are capable and competent and can lead,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a 32-year veteran and highly influential member of the Black Caucus. “This will be a great image for people of color, and for Black people and little Black boys to be able to aspire to a position as high as that.”
Jeffries’ ascension means Democrats will have a Brooklyn native leading both the House and the Senate, where Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is poised to remain the majority leader after Democrats held onto their upper-chamber majority in the midterms.
Jeffries said he has “a great relationship” with Schumer, who spent almost two decades in the House before moving to the Senate. Yet asked if he’s excited to have Brooklyn so well represented in Congress, Jeffries was coy.
“There’s a lot of excitement in Brooklyn about that,” he said.
Schumer, for his part, is looking forward to the partnership.
“I can’t wait to talk to my neighbor from Brooklyn four or six times a day like I did with Speaker Pelosi,” the Senate leader said on the floor Wednesday morning.
The votes came after a midterm cycle when Democrats lost control of the House, but performed much better than the polls and pundits had predicted, leaving Republicans with just a slim majority in the next Congress — and creating plenty of headaches for GOP leaders trying to unify their restive conference behind the party’s priorities.
Jeffries officially launched his bid for Democratic leader one day after Pelosi, in a highly anticipated speech from the House floor, announced that she would not seek a leadership position in the next Congress, putting an expiration date on her historic, two decade reign at the top of the Democratic caucus.
Shortly after, the Speaker’s two lieutenants — Hoyer and Clyburn — also announced they would not seek to remain in the top posts in the caucus, paving the way for a new generation of Democrats to lead the party.
Jeffries has long been seen as a successor to Pelosi. The Brooklyn Democrat has had a rapid rise in the ranks since he arrived in Washington in 2013, becoming co-chair of the caucus’ messaging arm and, later on, chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
He narrowly beat Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) for party chair in 2018 in a tight race, putting him on the path to leader that is just now coming to a headway.
The sitting “big three” in the Democratic caucus quickly endorsed Jeffries to head the party in the House shortly after he announced his bid. Hoyer hailed him as “an effective and historic champion,” and, before Jeffries announced his bid, Clyburn called the New York Democrat “absolutely fantastic.”