Democrats in the House of Representatives, one of the two branches of the United States Congress, have selected New York’s Hakeem Jeffries to lead their caucus.
His appointment, following a unanimous vote on Wednesday, was historic. Never before has a Black politician been named a party leader in the US Congress.
Jeffries is set to lead a Democratic party that will lose its majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2018. In a speech following the vote on Wednesday, Jeffries said the party would reach across the aisle to work with Republicans.
But he added that Democrats would “push back against extremism whenever necessary”.
So who is Jeffries, and what does his ascension mean for the future of the Democratic Party? Let’s take a look at who he succeeds and the role he has played in Congress so far.
Humbled to be elected incoming House Democratic Leader.
Ready to get to work.
— Hakeem Jeffries (@RepJeffries) November 30, 2022
Succeeding a ‘speaker for the ages’
Jeffries will be replacing California Representative and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as head of the Democratic caucus. She was the first woman in US history to hold the role.
Pelosi – who represents California’s 12th district in the San Francisco Bay Area – has served as leader of the House Democrats for nearly 20 years. During her tenure, she has become one of the country’s most powerful political figures, building a reputation as a skilled leader capable of holding her caucus together during important votes.
Pelosi announced she would step aside as party leader on November 17 along with two other top House Democrats, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer and South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn. All three are in their 80s.
Their departure ushers in a younger generation of Democratic leadership, including the 52-year-old Jeffries. He is joined by 59-year-old Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark and 43-year-old California Representative Pete Aguilar as whip and chairman of the caucus, respectively.
Jeffries thanked Pelosi in his speech on Wednesday, calling her an “extraordinary Speaker for the ages who has delivered so much for so many over such a significant period of time”.
“Our caucus is better. Our country is better. The world is better because of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s incredible leadership,” he said.
Presenting a unified front
Jeffries is a self-described progressive. In a letter asking his colleagues to support his bid for House Leader, Jeffries emphasised his commitment to issues like racial justice, gun violence and reproductive rights.
Andy Eichar, communications director for Jeffries’s office, told Al Jazeera over email that Jeffries has worked across the aisle to champion criminal justice reform and that he would protect healthcare from “right-wing attacks”.
However, Jeffries has staked out a more conservative position in the debate about the Democratic Party’s future and is expected to use his position to beat back challenges from the party’s more progressive left flank.
In an interview with The Atlantic, for example, Jeffries said he would never “bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism”. He was also a vocal supporter of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she ran in the 2016 Democratic primary against Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.
Pushing for a unified front on Wednesday, Jeffries acknowledged that conversations in his party can get “noisy”.
But, he said, “as we showed time and time again on issue after issue after issue, at the end of the day we always come together.”
Support for Israel
In his new role, Jeffries is also expected to bring continuity to areas such as the US relationship with Israel.
In a statement released in February, for example, Jeffries pushed back against a report by rights group Amnesty International, which accused Israel of carrying out the crime of apartheid against Palestinians.
The statement called the report’s accusations “demonstrably false, dangerous and designed to isolate Israel in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the world”.
According to the group Open Secrets, which tracks campaign contributions, Jeffries also counted pro-Israel advocacy groups such as AIPAC among his top supporters. AIPAC has also endorsed dozens of Republican candidates who attempted to roll back or discredit the results of the 2020 election.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Iman Abid, an advocacy director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said Jeffries “has repeatedly shown that he supports the Israeli apartheid regime” and called on US voters to pressure lawmakers like Jeffries to stop enabling the “oppression of the Palestinian people”.
Looking ahead to the 2024 elections
Jeffries also faces the challenge of rallying Democrats to regain their majority in the House of Representatives in 2024.
Democrats gained control of the White House and majorities in both branches of the US Congress in 2020. But Republicans won a majority of seats in the House during the recent midterm elections, with new members set to be sworn in on January 3.
Democrats, however, were able to maintain a slim majority in the Senate. In his November letter, Jeffries called winning back the House majority “our top non-governmental priority”.
Jeffries will square off against Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, a representative from California who has positioned himself as a steadfast ally of former President Donald Trump. McCarthy will become House Speaker when the new Republican-majority House convenes in January.
Though he will take the reins of a party in the minority, Jeffries struck a confident note at a press conference on Wednesday, promising to “get stuff done”.
“We’re going to fight hard,” said Jeffries. “Each and every day we have this honour to serve in Congress and deliver.”