Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is not sure if he is in the real world, but he is definitely in Congress.
The Brooklyn native spent nine years in higher education and seven years in corporate law before moving into the world of politics.
“Going through school, four years at Binghamton, two years at Georgetown, and then three years at NYU … at some point, my mother was concerned that I was afraid of entering into the real world,” Jeffries told The Hill. “I practiced law for seven years, and then got involved in elected office, and I’m not convinced that I’m in the real world yet.”
Real world or not, Jeffries had to hit the ground running. Jeffries’s 8th District of New York, which snakes across eastern Brooklyn and pieces of Queens, includes Coney Island and other areas hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. Jeffries arrived in office with a mountain of casework and fierce debate over the hurricane’s relief package in the halls of Congress. Jeffries, however, was readied for battle by his rocky beginnings in the often-bruising world of New York politics. In 2000, barely 30 years old, he challenged veteran Democratic New York Assemblyman Roger Green. Though he lost 59-41 percent in the primary, his insurgent performance was better than expected.
In 2002, as Jeffries prepared to challenge Green again, he found the borders of his Assembly district moved a block over, gerrymandering him out entirely. Though Green has denied it, Jeffries believes the move was political.
After moving two blocks to put himself back in his old district, Jeffries won a seat in the New York Assembly following Green’s retirement in 2006.
His personal experience with gerrymandering was not forgotten.
While in the Assembly, Jeffries was a strong champion for a law that abolished prison-based gerrymandering, a practice in which prison inmates (most of whom cannot vote) are counted as residents of the county where they are imprisoned and not of whatever district they resided in prior to incarceration.
In New York, this practice had the effect of enlarging upstate districts (where most prisons were located) while shrinking those in and around New York City (where most prisoners come from).
After three terms in the Assembly, Jeffries decided to make a play for federal office. In 2012, he entered the race for New York’s 8th District, a redrawn version of the 10th District held by Ed Towns. Towns chose to retire, leaving Jeffries to face New York City Councilman Charles Barron, a controversial figure and former Black Panther who drew heavy criticism for praising former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. When Jeffries won the primary handily, Barron refused to congratulate him.
In the majority-African American, overwhelmingly Democratic 8th District, Jeffries’s primary win virtually guaranteed his November victory. Barring scandal, he seems likely to hold the seat for the foreseeable future. Jeffries, however, says he will not take the seat’s safety as an excuse to be lazy or intractable. “The relative ideological cohesion of the district provides an opportunity to focus on policies … in a forceful and uncompromising fashion, [but] the people in the district I represent still expect me to work to find common ground with people on the other side of the aisle,” he said.
Many politicians first run for Congress out of frustration with politics or the country’s direction, but Jeffries says his motivation is quite different. Jeffries said it was not frustration but rather enthusiasm that drove him to make a congressional push. Specifically, Jeffries said he saw a second Obama term as a rare chance to advance a progressive agenda working alongside an agreeable president who did not have to worry about reelection.
“FDR had three-plus terms and changed this country for the better,” he said. “Truman didn’t run for [a third term], Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ didn’t run because of Vietnam, Carter lost, and Bill Clinton had to deal with an unjust, unfair and unreasonable impeachment proceeding that limited his capacity to get things done in his last four years.
“When you look back at that history, it’s clear that the opportunity to govern legislatively with a second-term Democratic administration, where the president doesn’t have to run for reelection ever again, is a rare one that must be taken full advantage of.”
Jeffries sees many issues on which he hopes to take advantage of President Obama’s second term. One such issue is criminal justice, an extension of his state-level work. While in the Assembly, he successfully sponsored a bill limiting the police’s “stop and frisk” powers, and he was happy to see the controversial practice struck down by a state court. He is also a strong ally of the president in supporting charter schools, despite the consternation this position sometimes causes the Democratic base.
Though Jeffries’s support for Obama is beyond question, he is not in lockstep agreement with the president. Due to his strong opposition to stop and frisk, Jeffries was deeply skeptical of the possible appointment of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security — despite Obama mentioning Kelly as a strong candidate.
“No corporation would tolerate a 90 percent error rate and yet that has been the standard of success put forth by [New York City]Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly [with stop and frisk],” he said. Jeffries said that while he has many broad ideological commitments, helping his constituents remains his fundamental responsibility.
“It’s important to make changes to the criminal justice system, create jobs and economic opportunity, and strengthen the civil rights that have been threatened by the Supreme Court and states over the last few years.
“There are a great number of social and economic justice issues that I hope to confront during my time in Congress,” he continued. “But at the end of the day, what’s most important is for the record to reflect that I’ve gotten things done to improve the lives of the people I represent.”