With his official election as House Democratic leader on Wednesday, Brooklyn-based Rep. Hakeem Jeffries makes history as the first Black man to hold that post. His election comes as Republicans are being pressed to comment on former President Donald Trump’s recent dinner with a noted white supremacist.
A day ahead of the historic vote, Jeffries fielded questions from reporters in New York, offering a blunt, partisan assessment of the message Americans sent with their votes in the midterm elections, how he hopes to lead the diverse House Democratic Caucus after more than two decades with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the helm, and with Republicans holding a slim majority.
"The 'D' in Democrat stands for 'deliver,'" said Jeffries as he cited key policy achievements, including the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. At the same time, he said Democrats would be stalwart opponents of extremism, calling out “the other side of the aisle whenever necessary.”
Here are excerpts from that conversation with Jeffries, which have edited and condensed for readability and flow.
How he plans to work with Republicans in the House majority
Jeffries said House Democrats would work to push back if Republican House leaders opt to use their position in the majority to target President Joe Biden and his family.
“It's my hope that Republicans will have learned a lesson from the recent midterm elections where they had historic underperformance, despite the fact that everything was moving in their favor in the context of a midterm election during a president's first two years,” Jeffries said.
He said that Americans were sending a message that they wanted to see Congress work together as opposed to fighting to score political points.
“I'm hopeful that Republicans will choose cooperation and common ground over chaos,” he added.
Asked about his relationship with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who’s vying to become speaker of the House, Jeffries simply said he “served with him in the United States House of Representatives,” without elaborating.
Whether he’s secured support from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive member who was initially lukewarm about his leadership bid
He said he’s had positive conversations with all members of the House Democratic Caucus during this process, “including Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.”
“I'll let her characterize that conversation as she sees appropriate,” he added.
A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment, citing their current focus on a potential rail worker strike.
His leadership style
In a letter to caucus members, Jeffries committed to an inclusive approach where he would empower all members. He said that meant, “We need every single member of the House Democratic Caucus on the playing field, playing the right position, but on the field.”
He also described his plans to “find common ground and build consensus and reach the highest common denominator in terms of what's possible legislatively.”
“That's been an approach that has worked for us with respect to the tremendous set of legislative accomplishments that we've had from the American Rescue Plan, to infrastructure, to gun safety, to the Chips and Science Act through the Inflation Reduction Act. There's no reason for us to abandon that formula and approach because it's been successful,” he added.
His takeaway from the midterm results
Even though Democrats lost control of the House by a narrow margin, Jeffries touted Democrats' performance for exceeding midterm election expectations, when the party in the White House traditionally loses ground in Congress. Jeffries said voters rejected the rightward tilt of the Republican Party in favor of Democrats who pledged to protect democratic institutions.
“In my view, the elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022 represent a clear repudiation of Trumpism and political extremism on the right. We have consistently won elections, defied expectations, and even in this midterm, where we were expected to lose the House in a red wave that only turned out to barely be a red trickle, overperformed expectations in the House, held the Senate, won governorships throughout battleground states in America, and even flipped legislative bodies,” said Jeffries.
“The results of the 2022 [midterm election] clearly affirm the job that Democrats have done across the country in fighting to make sure we defend democracy, protect freedom as well as the public interest, and fight to create economic opportunity in every single ZIP code. Our track record speaks for itself. Our vision for the future speaks for itself, and the American people are supportive of where we would like to take the nation,” he added.
The performance and future of the New York State Democratic Party
Jeffries, a disciplined public speaker, stayed very on message, repeatedly arguing that New York state Democrats needed an “after-action report” to determine why they lost four congressional seats previously held by Democrats during the midterm elections.
While he stopped short of calling for the ouster of state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, Jeffries did stress that the report should detail why the party failed to perform well across the state. “We need an after-action report to evaluate what happened, why it happened, and how do we do better moving forward, including in Nassau County,” said Jeffries, calling out Jacobs’ home turf.
He said he expected Gov. Kathy Hochul would ensure the party conducted that analysis and that it could be used to determine how to build the party’s infrastructure ahead of what will be another round of competitive federal elections in 2024.
Why he is confident Democrats can retake House majority control in 2024
“There will be a lot of targets of opportunity in terms of House seats in New York and throughout the country that Republicans are renting, not owning, because they will be districts that Joe Biden will have won in some cases significantly in 2020,” said Jeffries. He also suggested Biden’s coattails would benefit down-ballot candidates going forward when he runs for re-election in 2024.
How he thinks Democrats should be talking about the issue of crime
After Republicans made crime a centerpiece of their platform in New York, Jeffries said Democrats should refocus on the issue of addressing the “scourge of gun violence in America.” He cited the passage of the first gun safety legislation in 30 years “that will save lives and also make gun trafficking a federal crime for the first time in American history.”
He also said he hoped to see the law “heavily enforced” especially on illegal guns routed through the so-called I-95 “iron pipeline” and into communities across New York City.
Jeffries said forging greater bonds between police and communities is critical to public safety.
“I think it's important for us to continue to invest in violence interruption programs and providing young people throughout America, whether that be urban America, rural America, suburban America, small-town America, or the heartland of America, with real meaningful opportunities for success so that they can engage in constructive activity and are not tempted by some of the destructive forces that may be present in their neighborhoods.”
On the debate over bail reform and dangerousness standards in New York
Jeffries was reluctant to assess whether state legislative changes to bail reform laws were partially to blame for the loss of congressional seats in the Hudson Valley and Long Island. Instead, he said he expected state lawmakers to take a holistic approach to criminal justice reforms.
“I think the [state] Legislature needs to take a look at the criminal justice system comprehensively in the next session and figure out what is the best way to balance public safety with fairness and criminal justice reform. We've been able to do it successfully in Washington, D.C. and bring together Democrats and Republicans on this.”
“I believe that Speaker Carl Heastie, Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Hochul have the ability, the skill, and the wherewithal to strike the right balance moving forward in the next legislative session. It's not my job to weigh in aggressively with respect to the specific legislative path that they should take, but I do believe that they will aggressively address the issue of public safety in the next legislative session.”
Reflecting on his Brooklyn roots
Jeffries grew up in Crown Heights and graduated from Midwood High School. He and his family still live in Prospect Heights. He described his district as one of the nation’s “most diverse” congressional districts.
“When you grow up in Brooklyn, you have to confront adversity, and that was certainly the case for me coming of age as someone from Crown Heights in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic,” he said. “But that adversity makes you stronger and prepared to meet the challenges and the turbulence that life will send in your direction.”
Asked how he felt being described as part of the political “establishment,” Jeffries went back to his Brooklyn roots.
“I have no idea what that means to be an ‘establishment figure’ other than I've had the honor to represent the people of central Brooklyn for six years in the New York State Assembly and for 10 years in the United States Congress. If that makes me establishment, so be it.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Jeffries was officially elected on Wednesday.