Democrats in the House of Representativesone of the two branches of the United States Congress, chose Hakeem Jeffries of New York to lead their caucus.
His appointment, following a unanimous vote on Wednesday, is historic. Never before had a black politician been named party leader in the US Congress.
Jeffries is poised to lead a Democratic party that will lose its majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2018. In a speech after Wednesday’s vote, Jeffries said the party will reach the other side of the aisle to work with the Republicans.
But he added that Democrats “would push back on extremism whenever necessary.”
So who is Jeffries, and what does his rise mean for the future of the Democratic Party? Let’s see who he succeeds and the role he has played in Congress so far.
Humbled to be elected as the new Democratic House leader.
Ready to get to work.
— Hakeem Jeffries (@RepJeffries) November 30, 2022
Succeeding a “Speaker for the Ages”
Jeffries will replace the California representative and the current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi head of the Democratic caucus. She was the first woman in US history to hold this position.
Pelosi — who represents California’s 12th district in the San Francisco Bay Area — served as leader of House Democrats for nearly 20 years. During her tenure, she became one of the most powerful political figures in the country, earning a reputation as a skilled leader who was able to hold her caucus together in important votes.
Pelosi announced she would step down as party leader Nov. 17 along with two other top House Democrats, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. All three are octogenarians.
Their departure inaugurates a young generation of democratic leaders, including Jeffries, 52. He is joined by Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, 59, and California Rep., 43, Pete Aguilar, the whip and caucus chair, respectively.
Jeffries thanked Pelosi in her speech Wednesday, calling her “an extraordinary president for the ages who has delivered so much to so many people over such an important period of time.”
“Our caucus is better. Our country is doing better. The world is a better place because of the incredible leadership of President Nancy Pelosi,” he said.
Present a united front
Jeffries is a self-proclaimed progressive. In a letter asking his colleagues to support his candidacy for House leader, Jeffries highlighted his commitment to issues such as racial justice, gun violence and reproductive rights.
Andy Eichar, director of communications for Jeffries’ office, told Al Jazeera via email that Jeffries had worked across the aisle to defend criminal justice reform and that he would protect health care from “right-wing attacks.”
However, Jeffries has taken a more conservative stance in the debate over the future of the Democratic Party and is expected to use his position to fend off challenges from the party’s more progressive left flank.
In an interview with The Atlantic, for example, Jeffries said he would “never bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.” He was also a strong supporter of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she ran in the 2016 Democratic primary against Senator Bernie Sandersa self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
Pushing for a unified front on Wednesday, Jeffries acknowledged that conversations within his party can get “noisy.”
But, he said, “as we’ve shown time and time again on issue after issue after issue, at the end of the day, we always come together.”
Support for Israel
In his new role, Jeffries is also expected to bring continuity to areas such as US-Israel relations.
In a statement released in February, for example, Jeffries pushed back against a report by rights group Amnesty International, which accused Israel of perpetrate the crime of apartheid against the Palestinians.
The statement called the report’s accusations “demonstrably false, dangerous and designed to isolate Israel in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the world.”
According to the group Open Secretswhich tracks campaign contributions, Jeffries also counted pro-Israel advocacy groups like AIPAC among its best supporters. AIPAC has also backed dozens of Republican candidates who have tried to roll back or discredit the 2020 election results.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Iman Abid, advocacy director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said Jeffries “has repeatedly shown his support for Israel’s apartheid regime” and called on US voters to pressure lawmakers like Jeffries to stop allowing the “oppression of the Palestinian people.”
In view of the 2024 elections
Jeffries also faces the challenge of rallying the Democrats to regain their majority in the House of Representatives in 2024.
Democrats won White House control and majorities in both branches of the U.S. Congress in 2020. But Republicans won the majority of House seats in the recent midterm electionsnew members being sworn in on January 3.
The Democrats, however, were able to maintain a narrow majority in the Senate. In his November letter, Jeffries called winning back the House majority “our non-governmental priority.”
Jeffries will face Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, a representative from California who has positioned himself as a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump. McCarthy will become Speaker of the House when the new Republican-majority House convenes in January.
Although he will take the reins of a minority party, Jeffries dropped a confident note at a press conference on Wednesday, promising to “get things done.”
“We’re going to fight hard,” Jeffries said. “Every day we have this honor to serve in Congress and to deliver.”