Jeffries is in the House - Binghamton's first alumnus elected to Congress
It’s a spring day in Washington, D.C., and torrential downpours are taking their toll on the fragile cherry blossoms. While the gloomy skies might be a perfect metaphor for Washington these days — the sequester has rolled into its third month, budget impasses remain and energy for any substantive gun-control legislation has all but collapsed — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries ’92 is having none of it. As he sits in his office, Brooklyn’s newest representative and Binghamton University’s first alumnus elected to Congress talks excitedly about the U.S. Constitution with the kind of energy generally reserved for a college freshman taking Poli Sci 101.
“The founding fathers set forth a House of Representatives that was designed to reflect the mood of the public and the passions of the people at the moment,” Jeffries explains. “And in 2010, the American people were angry. I believe the anger was manipulated in ways that allowed the Tea Party crowd to win elections. As a result, there were a whole lot of angry members elected all across the country.”
Speak with Jeffries for more than a moment, expecting to discuss, say, the impact of the sequester, and you realize he’s just as happy discussing the wisdom that the framers demonstrated in 1787 by creating a two-body legislature with decidedly different goals. “The founders said the Senate would be a place to cool the passions of the public; that we’re going to insulate that institution from mood swings that can manifest themselves immediately and with ferocity. In 2010 you had an angry House but a Senate that was far more deliberative, as the founders said it should be, until the next snapshot of the American public could be taken in 2012.”
Which happens to be when Jeffries, a Democrat, ran to fill the seat of a retiring 30-year Republican incumbent in New York’s 8th Congressional District. “Brooklyn’s Barack,” as some in the press have dubbed him, coasted to victory with 90 percent of the vote.
That was the easy part. Assigned to the House Budget Committee, where the ideological chasm between the two parties is nowhere more evident, the 42-year-old freshman congressman has shown a willingness to work with Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., without shying away from a tussle.
“If he starts acting up, I might just have to get Brooklyn on him,” Jeffries joked about Ryan after his election, and he has made impassioned defenses of Social Security and low-interest loan rates for college students.
From Brooklyn to Binghamton
It’s been a remarkable journey for a kid who grew up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood during turbulent times. Jeffries, who has a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown and a law degree from New York University, credits his undergraduate time at Binghamton University — he affectionately calls it “Bingo” — for providing both an oasis from tough Brooklyn streets and a lasting foundation in the study of government and public service.
Jeffries laughs as he remembers showing up with a 13-inch television only to realize he couldn’t get any channels. “It was probably the best thing. We had to go out and enjoy each other and the landscape.
“I remember the opportunity to walk out at night at any time and feel completely at peace. That was a very different and liberating feeling compared to the neighborhoods of central Brooklyn in the 1980s, in the midst of the crack-cocaine epidemic.”
Jeffries embraced fraternity life. He was named head of his pledge line at Kappa Alpha Psi and remembers having a critical “why me?” epiphany. “It was one of the first moments as a teenager when someone else seemed to think there was some measure of leadership in me.”
Discovering the leader within
Jeffries, who lived in Whitney, in the Dickinson Community, majored in political science and Afro-American and African studies.
“Initially, I thought about majoring in law and philosophy, but I took a philosophy class and it didn’t do anything for me.” He stops for a second, thinking philosophically, and laughs. “It caused me to, um, ponder that this was not the direction that I should be going in my career. So I turned to Dave Cingranelli and the rest is history.”
Every college student takes one or two professors with them for the rest of their lives. For Jeffries, longtime Political Science Professor David Cingranelli left that kind of mark.
“He was a great professor,” Jeffries says. “It was the first class that really brought a significant amount of excitement to me in connection with government service. I recall him teaching a lesson about statecraft. There was something about his description of the different ways a state actor can influence behavior and policy among other countries beyond the raw use of military power.”
The eager student didn’t need an election to Congress to put the lesson to use. In his junior and senior years at Binghamton, Jeffries became president of Kappa Alpha Psi and also became active in the Black Student Union. “I recall working through some issues with the BSU using what seemed like sophisticated strategy and commenting to someone, ‘We’re using statecraft.’”
(Reflecting on this early triumph, he smiles: “I got an A-minus in the class. I should have gotten an A!”)
“That’s what separates a student like Hakeem from the rest — the organizational skills and the ability to motivate,” says Darryl Thomas, who was a professor of Africana studies at Binghamton and is now at Penn State University. “He was a very good student. You could always challenge and push Hakeem. What stood out was his ability to not look at everything in black-and-white terms.”
Cingranelli is proud of his former student. “Hakeem is now in a position to make a difference in the world. If he took my course on ethics and foreign policy, and liked it, then he will use his influence in Congress to promote a U.S. foreign policy that is less determined by short-term national interests and more determined by doing good for people living in other states in the long run.”
Jeffries knows it’s going to take an ungodly amount of statecraft to move the stuck boulder that is our government. Congress’ approval rating hovers around 13 percent. (“I think that number might even be inflated. It includes friends and family,” he jokes.)
“In 2012, the American public said Congress is broken, Washington is dysfunctional, we need to send people who are committed to trying to get things done. And what I’ve perceived, on both sides of the aisle, is that the members of the freshman class tend to be far more reflective of that mood of the public — let’s see if we can find common ground to get things done. This 2012 class is nowhere near as angry as the class of 2010.”
An optimist in the lion’s den
We use gun control to test his theory. Citing three pieces of legislation that have passed this year with only minority support of the majority party — the fiscal cliff package, Superstorm Sandy relief and the Violence Against Women Act — Jeffries is convinced public outcry will force the House to enact some form of gun-control legislation. “Why did [those three] happen? The speaker and the leadership have come to the conclusion that the current mood of the public says, ‘get things done and stop being the obstructionist.’”
“The House GOP will, in all likelihood, have to move a meaningful gun-violence legislative package on the floor, pass it and send it to the president for his signature, or there is a concern they will be blamed for continued inactivity on an issue of great importance to the American people.”
His voice picks up speed and determination.
“More than 2,000 Americans have died since the tragedy in Newtown. We have a gun violence problem that we just have to confront. The people are saying, ‘Deal with it.’ More than 10,000 Americans die as a result of gun violence each and every year. Japan, for instance, in 2008 had 11 homicides as a result of a gun. This is a country of 130 million people! Same thing in France. Same thing in Canada. What in the world are we doing in America, where we’re saying we can’t take meaningful steps to confront this gun violence problem that is robbing us of lives each and every day?”
Jeffries’ voice turns calm as his chief of staff enters the office to go over upcoming events. “I must be an inherently optimistic guy. This is the lion’s den of democracy. But it’s also a very important place where the business of the American people can still get done. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s messy. But ultimately this is the best form of government ever devised, and that’s something to be optimistic about.”
And with that, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries grabs his BlackBerry, steps outside, where the skies have begun to brighten, crosses the street and ducks into the United States Capitol to cast a vote.
Rep. Jeffries speaks to alumni. Click here for video.