Hakeem Jeffries elected House Democratic leader in historic first

Washington — House Democrats elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as their next party leader in a unanimous vote on Wednesday, ushering in a generational shift as Democrats prepare to relinquish control of the lower chamber in January.

Long considered a rising star in the party, the 52-year-old Jeffries will make history as the first Black party leader in either chamber of Congress. He takes the reins from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has served as House Democratic leader since 2003. Pelosi, 82, announced earlier this month that she would not seek another leadership position but would remain in the House.

Wednesday’s election means Jeffries will become minority leader when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3. Republicans will hold a narrow majority in the House for the first time since 2019, while Democrats retained control of the Senate in the midterm elections.

“For the past five terms, it has been my great honor to serve in the Congress working alongside colleagues from all across this country,” Jeffries said in a statement. “Today, with immense pride, I stood in front of the House Democratic Caucus as a candidate for Democratic Leader, and I am eternally grateful for the trust my colleagues placed in me with their votes.”

Jeffries, whose district encompasses large parts of his native Brooklyn, was first elected to Congress in 2012 and steadily ascended the party ranks, ultimately becoming chairman of the Democratic caucus in 2019. He served in the New York State Assembly prior to his election, and was a corporate lawyer before launching his political career, with stints as in-house counsel at Viacom and CBS.

Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Jeffries’ election a “turning point in the history of the United States Congress.”

“It’s not surprising that House Democrats are turning to someone from Brooklyn to lead the way next year, because when you’re from Brooklyn, you learn quickly traits like persistence and serious mettle. It’s a crowded place and a diverse place. You learn how to work with all kinds of different people. You learn how to stand your ground. You learn to not take things personally,” said Schumer, a fellow Brooklynite. “Hakeem Jeffries exemplifies all these traits.”

Serving alongside Jeffries will be Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who was elected Democratic whip, and Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who was selected as caucus chairman. All three ran unopposed.

Like Pelosi, current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland declined to seek another leadership post, while Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the current whip, plans to seek a new role as assistant Democratic leader in an election on Thursday. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said in a letter to colleagues that he would challenge Clyburn for the post, citing a need for LGBTQ representation in leadership.

Pelosi congratulated the new leaders on their elevation, saying in a statement that she looks forward to an “orderly transition” before the next Congress.

“Together, this new generation of leaders reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our great nation — and they will reinvigorate our Caucus with their new energy, ideas and perspective,” the California Democrat said. “Now, with the fullest confidence of our Members, our new Leaders are well-prepared to carry on Democrats’ fight for working families and defense of Democracy.”

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Jeffries said the new leadership team recognized the “solemn responsibility that we are all inheriting, and the best thing that we can do as a result of the seriousness and solemnity of the moment, is lean in hard and do the best damn job that we can for the people.”

“We are a coalition of people with different life experiences, ideologies and backgrounds. But at the end of the day, we’re always committed to finding the highest common denominator in order to get big things done. For everyday Americans. I’m confident that we can continue to do it,” he said.

Jeffries also offered some insight on his relationship with GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Republican nominee for the speakership.

“I think I’ve been pretty gentle on Kevin McCarthy over the years, to tell you the truth. I just respond to things that he has either said or done that I found to be outrageous, such as calling out members on our side of the aisle as extreme when he’s got an extraordinary group of members on the other side of the aisle who fall into that category,” Jeffries said. “Moving forward, it’s my hope that House Democrats can find common ground with Republicans to get things done that would make life better for everyday Americans whenever possible. But we’re also prepared to oppose their extremism when we must.”

Rebecca Kaplan and Jack Turman contributed reporting.