Hakeem Jeffries | Speaking for the minority 

A self-described ‘Black progressive Democrat’, the House minority leader keeps his party closely knit while taking on aggressive political rivals

December 04, 2022 01:59 am | Updated 01:59 am IST

With the closest contests of the U.S. midterm elections almost behind them — barring one, the Georgia Senate run-off election on December 6 — there is a palpable sense of relief among Democrats, who managed to cling on to the upper house even if they lost the House of Representatives to the Republicans. With the Senate and White House under their control, a minimum level of progress with their policy agenda is realistically possible.

Yet, Democrats will be watching the lower house closely for adversarial moves designed to discredit the administration of Joe Biden and stall the work of his government on Capitol Hill. This week, they picked the man who would take the fight to the Republicans in the House, and that was New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, 52. As Minority Leader, and the first African American to hold that post, Mr. Jeffries steps into the pantheon of Democratic leadership after his predecessor, current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said she would be stepping down to make the way for the next generation within the party.

So, who is Mr. Jeffries and what is the task that lies before him?

Born in 1970 in Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Jeffries is the son of a social worker and family welfare counsellor. After attending several state schools, he opted to study political science at the State University of New York, Binghamton. Reports say that during his final year at university, he was inspired to enter politics after the acquittal of the police officers who beat African American Rodney King, following which there was widespread rioting in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, post law school, Mr. Jeffries signed up to work with one of New York’s top law firms and then went on to serve as an in-house litigator for CBS and Viacom.

Political entry

After two fruitless attempts to enter the New York state legislature, he struck gold in 2006 and held on to the seat for six years. At the time he said he was motivated by a desire to “advance the ball for everyday Americans.”

While that aphorism is a hallmark of the Democratic ethos, the ground reality is that the party today is riven by factionalism and whether in the House or Senate, it would be a balancing act for any Democratic leader to hold the flock together to perform an effective legislative function in Congress.

To that extent, Mr. Jeffries perhaps has some cause for cheer. A self-described “Black progressive Democrat,” he is considered a moderate who does not eschew ties to corporate America like the left wing of the party does — perhaps this means he will struggle to build bridges with the likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Yet, his image as a “big tent” Democrat, a party boss who is fundamentally open to inviting all factions to the conversation, will serve him well as he takes on the likes of Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who hopes to become the Speaker of the House. In fact, he is well attuned to throwing down the gauntlet to the Republican leadership already — Mr. Jeffries was thrust into the limelight when, in 2020, Ms. Pelosi picked him as one of seven impeachment managers who served as prosecutors in erstwhile President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

It is precisely this skill set — the ability to keep his party closely knit while taking on aggressive political rivals in the House — that Mr. Jeffries will require through the 118th Congress that begins in early January. His eyes will be fixed firmly on one target alone — securing 218 seats in the House in the 2024 general election.

To achieve this, his task will be two-fold. Firstly, he will have to negate the likely acerbic discourse on the Biden administration by the House Republican majority, including corruption investigations of Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, and attacks on the performance of the Biden White House in stabilising the economy and asserting American power globally in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Second, Mr. Jeffries will have to advocate with ever-greater persistence for the Democratic vision for accelerating the American Dream, which means getting Democrats on Capitol Hill to speak with one voice on critical issues that matter to the ordinary American, including inflation and jobs, immigration, crime, reproductive rights, public health and more.

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