Before Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was nominated by Democrats on Wednesday to be the next House speaker, there was some discussion that the face of House Democrats should look more like the party’s base — younger or a person of color.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (Ohio) had been considering vying for the nomination to be speaker. Before she dropped her bid, she discussed the absence of black women in House leadership in an interview with The Washington Post.
“Where are we recognized?” Fudge asked. “If we’re going to have a diverse party, it ought to look like the party.”
But ultimately Fudge backed Pelosi, in part because of the latter’s success leading the Democrats back into power in the House — and also because she never got a serious challenger. But what those longing for a black speaker of the House did get is the hope that that day would come soon.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), 48, was named the Democratic Caucus chair, a powerful position that could catapult him to being the next House speaker.
Jeffries beat out a more senior black lawmaker, Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), for the position by about 10 votes. His win sparked some backlash, including charges of ageism and sexism from Lee herself. Jeffries is also viewed as the more moderate of the two, and their contest was seen as another front in the battle for the future direction of the Democratic Party.
But a big selling point for Jeffries is that he brings many of the qualities — ethnic diversity, new ideas and relative youth — that those hungry for a clear successor to Pelosi are seeking.
Jeffries was born in Brooklyn and worked in corporate law for CBS and Viacom before being elected to the New York State Assembly. In the House, he represents a New York district that includes Brooklyn and Queens.
As chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Jeffries will be fulfilling a dream of black lawmakers who came before him who eventually hoped to see more of their own among the top leadership.
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (La.), outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement: “When the Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971, I know our 13 founding members dreamed of the day when we would have more than one member in our ranks competing for top leadership positions in Congress. Today was that day, and I know they are proud.”
Those who wanted a more liberal leader, such as Lee, a longtime antiwar voice with activist roots connected to the Black Panther Party, dismissed Jeffries, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as a moderate who mainly relies on big business for support.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state lawmaker and surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), took to Twitter to express her disappointment that a ‘centrist’ would lead the Democratic Caucus.
But Angela Rye, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Fix that Jeffries’s corporate background, combined with his being an advocate for underrepresented communities, positions him well for leadership.
“He is not just brilliant and someone who is passionate, he is a consistent consensus builder. He is someone who has a good pulse on what’s going on. He wants to ensure that we only look better. And I’m looking forward to what he does,” Rye said.
Other liberals praised Jeffries but tempered that with the recognition that black women, who constitute the party’s most loyal demographic group, were shut out of the leadership elections.
“Hakeem Jeffries is not the future, he’s the now,” Bakari Sellers, a Democratic strategist and CNN commentator, told The Fix. “My only heartache is he had to do it at the expense of a black woman. Black women are the backbone of our party, and to look at the leadership of the Democratic Party and not see any black women on any level is disturbing beyond belief. And I don’t say that to downplay Hakeem’s achievements.”
Lee praised Jeffries but spoke about the challenges she faces because of gender and age — she is 72, while Jeffries is 48 — in her concession letter.
“Our caucus can only succeed when every voice is represented in leadership,” she tweeted. And quoting late congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first black woman elected to Congress, Lee said, “She used to tell people, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’ ”
Jeffries’s ascent could signal that the days of the Democratic leadership looking more like its voters is arriving, albeit more slowly than some would like. But his path to getting there signals that there are plenty of disagreements over Democrats' direction and leadership.