NEW YORK — A roiling immigration debate. Instability in Iraq. Ted Cruz.
Given all the pressures of the job, says Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), “It’s not clear to me that I’ve had a good night’s sleep the entire time I’ve been down in Washington.”
“Which, by the way, during my conversations with members does not seem to be particularly uncommon,” adds the ambitious freshman who’s been dubbed the Barack of Brooklyn.
In a Congress with record polarization, where freshmen are expected to spend four hours a day fundraising for their campaign accounts, Jeffries’ experience is ordinary. Some members combat the unrelenting drudgery with contemporary practices such as meditation. Jeffries, on the other hand, unwinds the way they did back in 1909 — by playing congressional baseball. His time on the Democratic team offers him an increasingly rare opportunity for legislators in Washington: a chance to make friends.
“The oasis of relaxation for me in Washington is centered around participating in the congressional baseball game,” Jeffries says during a break back home in his Brooklyn district.
From April to June, the Democratic team’s 23 members and coaches meet three days a week at 7 a.m. to practice. Jeffries plays back-up third base for Rep. Tim Bishop (N.Y.).
The ultimate goal of all the practice is the annual game between Republicans and Democrats, which the latter have won six years running.
The team has lacked a starting trash talker since the departure of Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), who Jeffries hears was “the lead individual in terms of vociferously expressing his strength on the baseball diamond.” But starting pitcher clearly belongs to Rep. Cedric Richmond (La.), who previously played for Morehouse College.
He “throws close to 80 miles per hour, so it really makes me feel good to be a Democrat seeing Cedric Richmond on the mound, pitching to Republicans,” says Jeffries.
But Jeffries says it’s the practices he has come to enjoy the most in his two years on the team. Although politics inevitably comes up during them, the practices are a rare opportunity to discuss family and districts with colleagues.
Between an intense congressional schedule and the punishing fundraising calls that Jeffries euphemistically refers to as “the non-governmental requirements during a two-year cycle,” Jeffries says he rarely speaks to other members of Congress outside the normal bounds of committee work or party caucuses.
It’s at practice that Jeffries has met Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.), the two senators on the team whom he likely would not have crossed paths with otherwise. And he has befriended Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), with whom he shares no common committee assignments — but does share a passion for criminal justice reform.
“The camaraderie of starting your day with other members of Congress who I was just beginning to get to know and playing a game that was important to all of us in our childhood has been a great experience — a getaway from the day-to-day pressures of being a member of the House of Representatives in this toxic environment,” he says.