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A borough takes charge: Brooklyn is in the House and Senate

In a congressional first, two lawmakers from the same borough, Charles E. Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries, are leaders of the Senate and House Democratic caucuses

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) walks to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

Midwood High School and James Madison High School sit just 1.5 miles apart, along Bedford Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn, each counting notable alumni such as Woody Allen (Midwood) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Madison).

On Wednesday, these two schools achieved a rare distinction that is unprecedented on Capitol Hill: With his elevation to House minority leader-elect, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Midwood Class of 1988, joins Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Madison Class of 1967, as congressional leaders not just from the same state or even same city, but the same borough.

Jeffries, 52, and Schumer, 72, hail from different Brooklyn eras and lives. Jeffries is making history as the first Black leader of a congressional caucus, a few years after Schumer made history as the first Jewish leader of a congressional caucus.

But they both plot their rise to power from that same borough, learning how to scrape their way through what would be the nation’s fourth-largest city if Brooklyn were on its own.

“I was born at Brooklyn Hospital, raised in Crown Heights by my two parents, who were public employees, a case worker and a social worker,” Jeffries told reporters at a news conference after his unanimous vote to take the reins, almost growing a bit emotional. “In a middle-class, working-class neighborhood in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic in the ’80s and into the early ’90s.”

In a brief interview Tuesday, Schumer said: “It’s a very crowded place, so to get somewhere you really got to fight and work hard. Second, it’s a very diverse place, so you’ve got to work with all kinds of different people, and the message of Brooklyn is: Never give up.”

Schumer celebrated with a tweet showing the two leaders together and touting their heritage minutes after Jeffries had been formally nominated to succeed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is stepping down after 20 years leading the caucus.

Only twice before has the same state produced leaders of House and Senate caucuses from the same party, at the same time, according to Donald Ritchie, an emeritus historian of the Senate. Most recently, in the 1950s, Texas produced a House speaker, Sam Rayburn, and a Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, but the Democrats’ hometowns sat more than 300 miles apart.

In the early 1920s, Massachusetts had the same two titles in its fold, with the GOP Senate majority leader, Henry Cabot Lodge, hailing from Boston and the Republican House speaker, Frederick Gillett, from nearly 100 miles away in Springfield.

Schumer’s current home is just about 10 blocks outside the district lines for Jeffries, according to aides. Schumer spent 18 years in the House, representing some of the same neighborhoods currently represented by the incoming minority leader.

“If this were baseball, New Yorkers would call it a Subway Series,” Ritchie joked.

And their moves up to the top rung on the leadership ladders complete New York City’s ascension as the major power center for the Democrats in Congress — after decades of watching Texas, Massachusetts and California dominate in the House and inland states like West Virginia, Nevada and Montana reign in the Senate.

That’s not an altogether great development for Democrats. Republicans have spent years pillorying them as out-of-touch elites from the coasts, with the words “Pelosi,” “San Francisco” and “liberal” playing on a recurring loop of GOP negative ads.

“I think that’s part of the Democrats’ problem, is they do tend to have East and West Coast myopia, but, you know, we have our own challenges. But I think that is a challenge,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Tuesday.

Now that focus will undoubtedly be on New York liberals.

But their friends say that two Brooklynites are ready for the fight ahead, even as they have not had anything like the 35 years of friendship that existed between Pelosi and Schumer.

On Nov. 30, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the House Democratic Caucus chair, becomes the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress. (Video: The Washington Post)

Jeffries is very much a Generation X politician, equally comfortable talking about the latest hip-hop artist or speaking at a Baptist church pulpit. Schumer comes across as the proud uncle who’s the last to leave the dance floor at his niece’s wedding, no matter what the younger attendees think of his style.

“Chuck is more like Neil Diamond and Hakeem is more Jay-Z,” said Joseph Crowley, the former Democratic congressman who spent 20 years representing neighboring Queens.

Neither Brooklynite is considered a staunch liberal and both have faced questions from activists about their ties to Wall Street donors. But both sit somewhere right in the middle of their caucuses, ideologically speaking.

Each launched his political career early and with ambition.

Schumer, the son of an exterminator, scored a 1600 on his SATs and left Madison High for Harvard University. After finishing Harvard Law, he jumped immediately into a state assembly race in 1974, just before he turned 24. He won his first House race in 1980 but was stymied by the hierarchical culture.

Even after jumping to the Senate, he spent 18 years there before becoming Democratic leader and another four before his party won the 2020 election. No one has spent more time in Congress — 40 years — before claiming the title of Senate majority leader.

Jeffries has vaulted upward at a pace Schumer could never fathom. He left Midwood High for Binghamton University and then, after a graduate degree at Georgetown University, he went to New York University School of Law and signed on with an elite Manhattan law firm.

He twice challenged, and lost both times, an assemblyman who was more than 20 years older than him on a theme of generational change, and he finally won an open seat race in 2006. After three terms in Albany, Jeffries set his sights on another older incumbent for a House seat from eastern Brooklyn, but the incumbent retired instead and Jeffries took a seat in the House 10 years ago.

He used his background growing up amid the crack-cocaine surge to become a champion of overhauling criminal justice laws, resulting in a 2018 law that passed by a wide bipartisan measure that was signed by President Donald Trump.

“He’s a fierce and very good legislator,” Crowley said Wednesday.

In 2018, with his eye on succeeding Pelosi, Crowley got caught looking around nationally to help Democrats and lost his primary, to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

That ended Crowley’s stint as chairman of the Democratic caucus, the No. 4 spot in Pelosi’s leadership team, and Jeffries won the race to succeed his friend. That placed him just under the trifecta of Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) as they all aged in their 80s and became ready to step back.

Jeffries is the seventh person to serve as caucus chair under Pelosi and Hoyer, none of whom went on to a higher rank in House leadership because of the stranglehold at the top.

“Not everyone was there at the right time and right place,” Crowley said. “For instance, me.”

Jeffries worked in team with Reps. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) for several years, presenting a united trio ready to take over once the three party elders stepped aside. And when Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn announced they were stepping back, on Nov. 17, everyone knew which three were taking charge.

Jeffries will take charge after just 10 years in the House, an almost unheard of speedy rise in that chamber.

As he thought about that moment, he reflected on Brooklyn, its diverse history and what he learned on those streets.

“Growing up in that Crown Heights neighborhood, the first member of Congress I was ever aware of was the honorable Shirley Chisholm,” he said, recalling the pioneer who became the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968.

Some of her old district neighborhoods fall in Jeffries’s current district, a bridge from the past to the present as important as the borough they hailed from. Wednesday was the late congresswoman’s birthday.

“I stand on the shoulders of people like Shirley Chisholm and so many others,” Jeffries said.

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