U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is one of 29 members of the delegation representing New York’s interests in Washington, D.C. And like his senatorial counterpart U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-Brooklyn), Jeffries has been making the media rounds, including a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton.” A two-term congressman from Crown Heights, Jeffries may have ambition for an even higher national office in the future, but makes sure to keep Brooklyn at heart.
During a recent interview with this reporter, Jeffries shared his goals for bridging the income gap and calming police-community tensions. He also expressed a significant area of disagreement with the leader of the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama.
Free Trade Agreements and New York’s Income Inequality Gap
On April 16, both houses of Congress voted to grant the president fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a robust trade agreement between the United States and 11 Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan but not China. If passed, the TPP would be the largest open market free trade agreement since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented in 1994.
The TPP has been lauded as necessary for the creation of jobs here and abroad. “[I]t would level the playing field, give our workers a fair shot, and for the first time, include strong fully enforceable protections for workers’ rights, the environment and a free and open Internet,” Obama said last Thursday to the approval of fast-track authority.
Many, however, believe that TPP will have a negative effect on America’s economy, and Jeffries is confident that without congressional review, a history of ineffective trade agreements will be repeated.
“NAFTA in the ’90s and CAFTA [the Central America Free Trade Agreement, signed into law in 2004, are] trade agreements that most objective observers have concluded have resulted in good-paying American jobs being shifted overseas to the detriment of the American worker,” Jeffries said in a March interview.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that given the history of these trade agreements failing the American people and those that I represent here in Brooklyn and all across NYC, that it would be irresponsible for Congress to simply yield our constitutional authority to amend, work on and improve trade agreements and simply accept it for an up-or-down vote,” the congressman said.
In last week’s deal reached between the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees, Obama has been given the authority to negotiate trade agreements subject to an up-or-down vote from Congress. Congress retains the ability to make the final trade agreement open to public comment for 60 days before the president signs it.
Jeffries indicated that an unrestrained trade agreement would further the income inequality gap, specifically within New York.
“Even though this is a president, where in every other area I trust his capacity and integrity … the history of trade agreements suggests to me that Congress has to be involved,” Jeffries said in March.
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. lost more than 700,000 actual and potential jobs under NAFTA. Specifically, in New York, 46,210 jobs were lost in that time period — making New York the third behind Michigan and California for the states with the most job losses.
And the income inequality gap and wealth concentration, particularly in New York City, is steadily increasing. A report by the Graduate Center at CUNY showed that in 1990, the upper 20 percent of all New York City household earners controlled 48 percent of the total household income; by 2010 their share had risen to 54 percent, higher than the national trend of 50 percent.
“The decline of the American middle class over the past 30 years should trouble all of us,” Jeffries said in March. “[There is] an increasing level of income inequality that is the greatest now than it has ever been over the last 100 years since the great depression.”
A 2013 Pew Research Study concluded that U.S. income inequality is now the highest it has been since 1928. In an effort to close the income gap, Jeffries proposes an initial raise to the federal minimum wage.
“Raise the minimum wage,” Jeffries declared. In December 2014, New York state raised its minimum wage to $8.75; the federal minimum wage is between $7.25 and $8.25. A measure to increase the federal minimum wage was defeated in April 2014. “The Republicans failed to act,” Jeffries said of the unsuccessful push to boost federal minimum wage to $10.10.
Last Wednesday, hundreds of protesters gathered on Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn to rally in favor of a $15 minimum wage.
An Investigation into NYPD?
Next month, NYPD Officer Peter Liang will appear in a Brooklyn courtroom on charges of criminally negligent homicide for the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley — an unarmed black man — in an East New York housing complex. Gurley’s death in November 2014 came after the more publicized deaths of unarmed men of color by police officers and serious allegations of police brutality both in New York and across the country.
Following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted an investigation into both the shooting and the Ferguson Police Department. In March 2015, the DOJ concluded that while Officer Wilson did not violate federal civil rights law, the policing tactics of the city of Ferguson Police Department have “contributed to a pattern of unconstitutional policing.”
Though New York does not have the same policing polices of Ferguson, Jeffries expressed concern that the NYPD’s Broken Windows policy — supported by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio — has caused a disproportionate level of policing in minority communities and increases the potential for dangerous police encounters.
“Broken windows policing … [is an] unreasonable [way] to enforce the law in an overly aggressive fashion,” Jeffries said during his March interview. “And many of us believe that these citations are issued in a disproportionate way.”
A New York Civil Liberties Union calculation shows that blacks and Hispanics made up approximately 81 percent of the 7.3 million people who received violations between 2001 and 2013. As the New York Daily News observed in a 2014 analysis of summons data, a strong correlation was found between race and more minor violations, such as disorderly conduct and spitting.
When asked if an investigation similar to the one conducted in Ferguson is needed for the NYPD, Jeffries simply replied, “I certainly think it will be helpful.”
This past summer, six members of the New York congressional delegation, including Reps. Jeffries, Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn), Gregory Meeks (D-Queens), Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan), Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) and Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), called on the DOJ to investigate the July death of Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island. An autopsy showed that Garner — who was unarmed when he was killed — died due to a police chokehold while being restrained on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
The next general election for congressional office will be held in 2016 — an election race Jeffries plans to be a part of.
“I am hopeful that I will be able to do a great job when the time comes to run for re-election…and most importantly [help] elect a Democratic president to replace Barack Obama. Because being in the majority, ultimately, will put me in the best possible position to effectively represent the interests of the people [who] I serve in the 8th Congressional District,” Jeffries said in March.
“It’s just an honor and a privilege to serve the people of the 8th Congressional District in U.S. Congress. We’re going to fight to get the priorities that are important to the district done.”