USA TODAY: Rep. Hakeem Jeffries draws inspiration from both the Bible and Biggie Smalls. Can he unite Democrats’ warring factions?
MAUREEN GROPPE – DECEMBER 21, 2020
WASHINGTON – New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries didn’t think twice about using rap lyrics to argue why President Donald Trump should be removed from office earlier this year.
Standing in front of the Senate’s marble rostrum in January as one of the House Democrats’ impeachment managers, Jeffries felt “reasonably confident that if the spirit moved me, it was the right thing to do.”
After Trump’s lead attorney questioned why the trial was taking place, Jeffries succinctly summed up the case in his usual steady, deliberative manner before adding: “And if you don’t know, now you know.”
Jeffries heard an audible reaction from the back of the Senate but didn’t know if it was positive or negative – or just surprise that he had quoted the Notorious B.I.G.
The voice, he found out later, belonged to California Sen. Kamala Harris, who had jumped in to finish Biggie Smalls’ iconic line with Jeffries.
“At least one United States senator got the reference,” Jeffries recently told USA TODAY. “That’s a good start.”
Harris, of course, will soon be moving to the White House to serve as President-elect Joe Biden’s No. 2.
Biden, who at 78 will be sworn in as the oldest president in the nation’s history, has called himself “a bridge” to the next generation of Democrats. His choice of Harris, 56, as his running mate was a recognition of the energy in the party coming from a younger, more diverse cohort.
The top three leaders of the House are in their 80s. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., previously pledged not to stay in that role beyond the next two years.
The 50-year-old Jeffries, who was just re-elected as chairman of the Democratic Caucus is viewed as a potential successor – although it’s too early to gauge if he has the widespread support to make him the nation’s first Black speaker of the House.
As caucus chair, House Democrats’ No. 5 leadership position, Jeffries’ job is to regularly convene colleagues to hash out party policy and pending legislative matters. He’s also a top spokesman.
Though clearly ambitious, Jeffries eschews any public discussion of whether he wants a loftier perch.
His approach, he said, has always been to “do the job that’s in front of you – which is a tough one right now.”
“He’s the chair of the caucus because he’s competent and capable and respected,” said Florida Rep. Val Demings, who put his name into nomination for re-election. “When we look at him, we also see the future of our caucus – which is pretty daggone critical.”
House Democrats’ immediate task is to figure out why they lost seats in the November election and how to hold together their razor-thin majority. Some centrist Democrats blame far-left positions, like “defunding” the police, for the losses, while many liberal activists and lawmakers argue their side energized the party’s base.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the incoming chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, predicted “Democrats will be so mired in the infighting between the two wings of their party that the American people get sick of it very quickly.”
When Jeffries recently declared that House Democrats will be “lean, mean and unified” in the next Congress, the spokesman for the GOP opposition group “America Rising” scoffed.
“Bookmarking this quote for later,” Chris Martin tweeted.
Jeffries said the campaign arm of House Democrats is still studying the 2020 House election results for a report that will be delivered to the caucus early next year.
“Once we have a family discussion, anchored in facts, data and analysis,” he told USA TODAY, “we can more intelligently conclude how we should approach the midterm elections in 2022.”
But the core message, Jeffries said, will remain centered on “kitchen table, pocketbook issues” and on doing more than simply returning to the pre-pandemic status quo.
“Joe Biden had a winning message in terms of building back better,” he said. “We have to build back better in addressing the economic struggles and the underlying health care disparities that exist throughout America.”
At the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s, he regularly heard gunshots in the working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn where he was raised by his father, a substance abuse counselor, and his mother, a social worker.
Hip hop, the soundtrack of his youth, “told our stories in a way that I could relate to,” Jeffries said of Brooklyn’s Biggie Smalls and the other artists he listened to. “It’s a raw and genuine and realistic encapsulation of the experiences of many in urban America. That’s why it has always resonated with me and continues to do so, even in the halls of the United States Congress.”
Jeffries also has strong, positive memories of Brooklyn’s mix of races, religions and languages. That diversity, he and other say, helped prepare him for working with the parties’ many interest groups and for representing his own district – which has one of the largest Black populations but also big pockets of Jewish and Hispanic residents . It combines deeply poor neighborhoods with those that are rapidly gentrifying.
“He has such an experienced hand at bringing people together,” said New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a moderate Democrat who has worked with Jeffries on criminal justice and other issues.
The ease with which he regularly speaks without text belies extensive preparation that includes mastery of the material and thought about the message he wants to convey.
The delivery method is informed by the 30-minute sermons he heard in the Black churches of his youth. Attending the historic Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jeffries would often marvel at a preacher’s ability to convey complicated theological points that were received with great emotional power by not using notes. As a congressman, he regularly makes around 100 church visits in his district each year.
But don’t expect fire and brimstone when he takes the microphone.
Jeffries’ college fraternity brothers at Binghamton University called him “Kool Ha,” for his measured manner of speaking.
After earning a masters in public policy from Georgetown University and a law degree from New York University, Jeffries honed his oratorical skills as a corporate lawyer. Clients included Viacom Inc. and CBS.
When Jeffries decided to run for office, the competitive world of New York City politics taught him what happens when you come close to knocking off an incumbent in the primary race for a state legislative seat: Jeffries’ home was placed one block outside of the district when new lines were drawn before the next election.
“That move was gangster,” Jeffries said in a 2019 interview on “The Axe Files” podcast.
After relocating his family two blocks to get back in the district, Jeffries made it to the New York State Assembly where some referred to him as “Brooklyn’s Barack.”
“The only thing that I can definitively say we have in common is that we were both born on Aug. 4,” Jeffries told The New York Times last year.
When Jeffries ran for Congress in 2012 – replacing a 30-year incumbent Democrat – he immediately began boosting his leadership aspirations by helping other candidates.
“I was waiting for him to ask me what he needed,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who headed the campaign arm of House Democrats that year. “And, instead, he led off with how he was going to support the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and the members of the caucus.”
While easily winning his own primary and general election in his heavily Democratic district, Jeffries mentored other first-time candidates, raised money for incumbents in tough races and campaigned for others.
He’s continued to be a top fundraiser, active campaigner and adviser to colleagues.
After Sherrill flipped a GOP district in 2018, Jeffries – who had campaigned for her – asked what she needed to keep the seat in her hands.
“He reached out to me to make sure that he understood what it was going to take for me to be successful, to best support my constituents,” Sherrill said. “Because Hakeem Jeffries knows that the (Democratic House) majority runs right through districts like mine.”
Jeffries’ support across different factions of the caucus – progressives, moderates, Hispanic lawmakers, Asian and Pacific Islander members, and others – helped him win his hotly-contested 2018 bid for caucus chairman against California Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive icon and more senior member of the Black Caucus. His relative youth compared to Lee’s then-72 years also worked in his favor.
“You’ve got to look toward the future,” said New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, an early ally.
While representing the interests of a district he refers to as” the people’s Republic of Brooklyn,” Jeffries calls himself a “pragmatic progressive.” Previous failed efforts to pass criminal justice reform reinforced his view not to hold out for everything on a wish list if there’s a chance of delivering some needed help.
Jeffries had to fight for that position when, in 2018, he teamed up with Rep. Doug Collins, a conservative Republican from rural Georgia, to get the ball rolling on prison reform.
As the bill faced growing criticism from the left, Democrats were telling Jeffries they weren’t sure if they could support it.
Huddling with his aides in his Capitol Hill office late one May night, Jeffries and his team drafted a response letter. For motivation, he cranked up “Takeover,” a diss track by Jay-Z that symbolized they were “taking the narrative back,” remembers Michael Hardaway, his former longtime spokesman who is now CEO of Hardaway Wire, a political intelligence startup.
The bill passed the House and was part of the larger First Step Act, signed into law by Trump, to revise sentencing guidelines and reduce mandatory minimums, along with other changes.
“All of these things … only became possible because Hakeem went into battle rap mode and said, ‘No. We’re not going down like this,’” Hardaway said.
Democrats’ prosecution of Trump in front of a Senate jury controlled by Republicans was a bigger challenge.
The impeachment managers felt the weight of the world on their shoulders as they conducted only the third presidential impeachment trial in history and the first to include an impeachment team not composed solely of white men, Demings said.
Texas Rep. Sylvia Garcia, another Democratic impeachment manager, said Jeffries was key to keeping up their spirits.
On the first day, when she rose to address senators and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts after sitting for 10 or more hours, the former judge felt like a young lawyer just hoping words would come out when she opened her mouth.
When she got through her opening remarks, Garcia remembers Jeffries leaning over and exclaiming: “Damn, that was good. I don’t know how you were able to just get it together to do that.”
“That’s the kind of stuff that he does,” Garcia said. “He knows what bills you’re carrying. He knows what you’re doing and he’s encouraging.”
Demings recalled a chaotic moment during the trial when, as the managers were speaking, a shouting protestor burst into the spectators’ section of the Senate gallery before being subdued by police.
“It’s one of those things where you first inclination is to hit the deck,” said Demings, a former police chief of Orlando, who wondered if she should help the officers take down the protester.
Jeffries’ response was to turn to the Bible, reciting a portion of Psalm 37 from the lectern.
“He quoted the scripture that said, ‘For the Lord loves justice and will not abandon his faithful one,’” Demings said. “So it really helped to bring us back to why we were there in the first place. And that was to make sure that justice for the American people was served.”
When talk turns to potential successors to Pelosi, Jeffries generates some of the most buzz, said political analyst Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections.
“But everyone looks small, or like they’re playing in the minor leagues, compared to the speaker,” he added. “It’s tough to envision someone else putting together the coalition necessary to hold that post, until closer to the moment when Pelosi is officially done.”
Israel, the party’s former House campaign chair, likewise said it’s too soon to game out how the competition for speaker will unfold the next time Democrats have to make that choice.
“One thing I’ve learned, as somebody who was in the leadership, there’s just too many unknowns to really begin calculating your next step,” he said. “You’ve just got to succeed at what you’re doing at that time.”
While there was some quiet chatter in November about whether Jeffries was going to challenge anyone above him on the leadership ladder for the next Congress, Garcia said that was never going to happen. He’s where he needs to be right now, she said.
But when a new position becomes available, Garcia added, “he’ll be ready.”