Hakeem Jeffries elected to lead House Dems, will become 1st Black party leader in Congress

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., was unanimously elected Wednesday as the next leader of the House Democratic Caucus. The 52-year-old Brooklyn native, who succeeds 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be the first Black and first nonwhite party leader in Congress.

He will be joined in the Democratic leadership by others representing the party’s next generation: Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, 59, who replaces Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 83, as the second-ranking Democrat, and Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, 43, who replaces Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, 82, as the third-ranking Democrat and incoming caucus chairman.

This will be the first time that a major party in Congress has no white men in leadership. Clark will become the second woman ever to hold the whip position, after Pelosi. Aguilar, who is of Mexican descent, is now the highest-ranking Latino in Congress.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, makes a quip at the podium with the seal of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Pete Aguilar and Rep. Katherine Clark look amused.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., flanked by Reps. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and Katherine Clark, D-Mass., speaks on Capitol Hill on Wednesday after being elected as the new Democratic House leader. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In a press conference on Capitol Hill, Jeffries thanked the outgoing leadership.

"From the very beginning of our arrival in the Congress, we stand on their collective broad shoulders building upon the incredible work that they've done, excited about the opportunities to advance the ball for everyday Americans as we move forward into our future," Jeffries said.

He also lauded Pelosi as a "speaker for the ages who has delivered so much for so many."

"Our country is better, the world is better because of Speaker Nancy," he said.

Jeffries has served as the U.S. representative for New York’s Eighth Congressional District since 2013. He was previously a member of the state Assembly. He cruised to reelection in the midterms earlier this month, easily defeating his Republican challenger, Yuri Dashevsky, with 72.3% of the vote.

He avoided the fate of other members of New York’s Democratic caucus, which lost four congressional seats — including the one held by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the House Democratic campaign chairman, charged with protecting his party’s hold on Congress.

Those losses in an overwhelmingly Democratic state stood out in an election in which the party outperformed expectations in both House and Senate races nationally.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries passes from a corridor in the Capitol through a wooden door, as members of the media gather behind him, one adjusting a portable spotlight.
Jeffries arrives for the leadership election meeting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Jeffries has held prominent positions on Capitol Hill. In 2018 he defeated Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., to become chair of the House Democratic Caucus, making him the fifth-ranking member of the Democratic leadership in the chamber.

In 2020 he was selected by Pelosi to serve as one of seven House managers to present the case against then-President Donald Trump during his first impeachment trial before the Senate.

Earlier this month, the top three ranking Democrats in the House — Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn — announced they would relinquish their leadership roles after Republicans clinched majority control of the chamber, opening the door for new leadership of the Democratic caucus.

Clyburn said he still intends to run for the assistant leader position, which would make him the the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. On Wednesday, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., announced a surprise bid for the same slot. Cicilline, who is gay, said the LGBTQ community deserves a leadership spot of its own, especially after the deadly shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries embrace on the House floor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to Jeffries on Nov. 17 after announcing she would not seek a leadership role in the upcoming Congress. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In 2002, Pelosi became the first woman elected as a party leader in Congress. In 2007, she became the first woman elected speaker of the House.

Jeffries calls himself a pragmatic progressive who shares Pelosi’s willingness to embrace more moderate members. “I’m a Nancy Pelosi Democrat,” he told Yahoo News in 2020.

But the Democratic establishment has come in for criticism from the party’s left wing. Shortly after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was elected in 2018, a group closely allied with her discussed recruiting a primary challenger to run against Jeffries.

At the time, he responded to the potential of a primary threat with a quote from his favorite rapper, Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G.

“Spread love,” Jeffries said. “It’s the Brooklyn way.”

Marquise Francis contributed reporting to this story.