Jeffries makes historic bid to lead House Dems after Pelosi

NEW YORK (AP) – One day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would step aside, launched Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York on Friday made a history-making bid to become the first black person to lead a major political party in Congress as leader of the House Democrats.

In a letter to his colleagues, Jeffries gave a nod to the “legendary figures” before him: Pelosi, the first female speaker in American history, and her leadership team. He urged his colleagues in the House to embrace a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to unlock their “full potential as a team.” And he vowed to draw on the diverse Democratic caucus as it works to reign in a divided Congress and win back the majority after House Republicans narrowly took control in the midterm elections.

“The House Democratic Caucus is the most authentic representation of the beautiful mosaic of the American people,” Jeffries wrote.

“I am writing to humbly ask for your support for the position of House Democratic Leader as we once again prepare to face the moment.”

Along with Pelosi, the other top two House Democrats announced — Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the whip — also their intentions to resign from the leadership. All three are in their 80s.

A new generation wasted no time preparing to take their place. Along with Jeffries, reps wrote. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California — who have worked together as a junior leadership group — quickly to colleagues with their bids for the second- and third-ranking positions in the House Democratic leadership. Jeffries and Clark are in their 50s, while Aguilar is in his 40s.

The trio has been working together for years, preparing for this very moment, trying to create a smooth transition when Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn decided to leave.

Pelosi heartily endorsed the potential new leaders.

“It is with pride, gratitude and confidence in their abilities that I salute Speaker Hakeem Jeffries, Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark and Vice Speaker Pete Aguilar for being ready and willing to take on this tremendous responsibility,” Pelosi said Friday in a declaration.

House Democrats will meet behind closed doors as a caucus in two weeks, after the Thanksgiving holiday, to choose their members. So far, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar have no declared challengers.

The Brooklyn-born Jeffries has long been seen as a charismatic new leader, known for his sharp but careful style, first in New York politics and since entering the national scene after winning election to Congress in 2012.

Jeffries, a former corporate attorney and state assemblyman, has represented Brooklyn and parts of Queens for a decade and quickly rose through the ranks in Congress, serving as the party’s 5th-highest-ranking member as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

“You could sense there was a purpose to him,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, recalling the quiet and thoughtful young lawmaker he first met in decades.

“He always seemed like a guy who was going somewhere but was willing to take the pace to get there,” Sharpton said. “You meet a lot of people who are ambitious, who would do anything. You never got that impression from Hakeem.”

While Jeffries has been part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he is seen as a more moderate, pro-business lawmaker who is sometimes at odds with House members on the far left.

But his appeal rests on his political prowess at a transformative time, as Pelosi and her team make way for a new era.

Carl Heastie, a Democratic state legislator who became the first black person to serve as speaker of the New York State Assembly, bonded with Jeffries on the campaign trail two decades ago over a love of hip-hop.

“Hakeem had that ‘it’ factor,” Heastie said. “He stands out in the room.”

If Jeffries is elected to serve as minority leader, Democrats will be led in both chambers of Congress by men from Brooklyn — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn native, lives in a neighborhood near where Jeffries lives with his wife and two sons.

His district includes the black cultural center of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, home of Jackie Robinson and once represented by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress.

The job of minority leader puts Jeffries in line to become speaker if Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives.

“Another glass ceiling broken,” the rep said. James McGovern, D-Mass., on his colleague’s progress. “I look forward to being able to call him speaker.”

Jeffries first won election to the House in 2012, replacing Democrat Edolphus Towns, who decided to retire rather than face what was expected to be a stiff primary challenge from Jeffries.

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, Jeffries attended public schools in New York City before graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied political science. He received a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University and a law degree from New York University.

He clerked for a federal judge and worked for several years at a law firm in New York City and later as corporate counsel for CBS.

His first calls for public office were strong back-to-back but unsuccessful attempts to unseat longtime Democratic state Assemblyman Roger Green beginning in 2000.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who was Green’s campaign manager, said at the time that Jeffries was “a would-be rebel” who “wanted to make his mark in central Brooklyn — and he did.”

When the seat opened in 2006, Jeffries won. He served six years in Albany, where he worked on criminal justice and civil rights legislation.

He sponsored a law that prevented the New York Police Department from keeping a database of personal information about every person stopped and questioned under the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactic, even if the person was released and not charged with a crime .

He continued that work in Congress. After the 2014 choking death in New York of Eric Garner, a black man whose gasp of “I can’t breathe!” became part of a national rallying cry against police brutality, Jeffries tried to pass legislation that would make the choke hold a federal crime.

James, who rose through the same Brooklyn Democratic political circles as Jeffries and worked with him on affordable housing issues when she was on the City Council, said she reached out to Jeffries Thursday night.

“I sent him a text and encouraged him not to forget the residents of the public housing we served,” James said. “And he answered back and said, ‘Never.'”

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Mascaro reported from Washington.

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