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House Democrats elect Hakeem Jeffries as Congress’ first Black party leader

Nov. 30, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 30, 2022 at 10:42 a.m.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., departs a leadership election meeting with the Democratic caucus in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, in Washington, D.C.   (Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America/TNS)
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., departs a leadership election meeting with the Democratic caucus in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, in Washington, D.C.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Nolan D. McCaskill Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — House Democrats tapped Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York on Wednesday to lead them in the next Congress, and elected California Rep. Pete Aguilar of California as House Democratic Caucus chair.

The historic selection of Jeffries as the incoming minority leader means he will replace Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, in January as the highest-ranking African American member of the House and become the first Black lawmaker to lead either party in the chamber.

In addition to Aguilar, Jeffries will be joined in the top tier of Democratic leadership by Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts as minority whip.

Democrats say their new leadership team is reflective of America’s diversity.

Clark will become the second woman in congressional history to serve as whip, tasking her with having a grip on where members stand on legislative issues, and when needed, pressuring them to toe the party line.

Aguilar will follow former Reps. Xavier Becerra of California and Robert Menendez of New Jersey as the third Latino member to chair the Democratic Caucus. Becerra is now secretary of Health and Human Services, while Menendez is a member of the Senate.

In his new post, Aguilar will lead caucus meetings and hold weekly news conferences. The position is limited to two consecutive terms, but Aguilar would be poised to become majority whip if Democrats take back the House in 2024.

The incoming group of Democratic leaders will succeed the party’s longtime leadership trio of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Clyburn, who currently serves as majority whip.

That group of octogenarians will continue their service into the next Congress, though only Clyburn will remain in leadership, serving as assistant Democratic leader.

On Tuesday night, however, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee voted unanimously to grant Pelosi the honorific title of speaker emerita.

The Brooklyn-born Jeffries, 52, was a lawyer before serving six years in the New York State Assembly, which he left at the end of 2012 after winning a congressional seat.

He entered House Democratic leadership in 2017 as a co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which works on caucus messaging.

He ascended to caucus chairman in 2019, serving two terms in a higher tier of leadership, leading caucus meetings and hosting weekly news conferences alongside Aguilar, his deputy.

In her nominating speech Wednesday, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan of California said Jeffries, the son of two social workers, “was literally born into a life of public service,” and that he would pursue “progressive policies that will move us forward.”

Though a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jeffries separated himself from the “hard-left” faction of his party in an interview with The Atlantic last year.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that she met with Jeffries and supports his leadership.

“I wanted to make sure that that relationship is clear from the very beginning: that progressives are here to help govern, to push for the best ideas, and I was really encouraged by what I heard,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a really good relationship.”

An advocate of social and economic justice, Jeffries notched a top legislative achievement with the bipartisan First Step Act, criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. He served as one of the House prosecutors in the first impeachment of Trump.

Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar will lead House Democrats with the outgoing leadership team’s blessing and no individual challengers. But members say they collectively face the challenge of having to succeed a historic leader in Pelosi and her leadership team.

“She made a razor-thin majority look easy, but it’s not easy,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, of California, who called Pelosi “irreplaceable,” a descriptor seconded by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff of California.

“People will begin to see what a miracle worker she’s been, how difficult that job is, how it requires an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone’s wants, needs, what they really want and what they really need,” Schiff said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., acknowledged Jeffries has big shoes to fill, noting Pelosi’s outsize role in candidate recruitment, fundraising and helping the party.

“People will be open to giving him a real chance to lead and unify the caucus,” he said. “It’s going to be quickly apparent, though, how much Nancy Pelosi did for this caucus and how difficult that job is going to be.”

Jeffries’ supporters believe he’s up to the task. Retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he has known Jeffries since his first day in Congress.

Butterfield predicted Jeffries “will go down in history as one of the greatest Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives.”

“He is a man of impeccable character,” Butterfield said. “He is exemplary. He also adds to that a set of political skills that are unmatched. He has the ability to sit in boardrooms and to sit in high-level political discussions and to contribute immeasurably. And he also has the ability to relate to the average American, those who are back at home in our districts who work every day in hardworking positions in their communities. He has a broad array of talents.”

Jeffries’ launch as leader may prove a little easier in the minority, where Democrats will no longer control the legislative agenda.

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