House Democrats elect Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as leader, the first Black person to lead congressional caucus

WASHINGTON — House Democrats elected their new leadership team Wednesday, ushering in a younger generation of leaders after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer decided to step aside after Democrats narrowly lost the majority this month.

Pelosi, 82, of California, the first female speaker of the House, will pass the torch to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., 52, who ran unopposed for minority leader and will make history as the first Black lawmaker to lead a political party’s caucus in either chamber.

“Today, with immense pride, I stood in front of the House Democratic Caucus as a candidate for Democratic Leader, and I am eternally grateful for the trust my colleagues placed in me with their votes,” Jeffries said in a statement.

Jeffries’ top deputy will be Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., 59, a progressive who served under Jeffries as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and rose to assistant speaker this Congress. She was elected minority whip, the party’s top vote counter.

Rounding out the trio of new leaders is Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., 43, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member and former mayor who was elected Democratic Caucus chairman — the role Jeffries has held for the past four years.

The election of Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar represents a changing of the guard for House Democrats who have seen the powerful triumvirate of Pelosi, Hoyer, D-Md., 83, and Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., 82, occupy top leadership posts for the past two decades.

“This is a moment of transition,” Jeffries told a small group of reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday night. “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but are also looking forward to being able to do what’s necessary at this moment to advance the issues.”

Of the current “Big Three” Democrats, only Clyburn, the current majority whip, has opted to stay in leadership in the new Congress. He will run for the job of “assistant leader,” which has been considered the No. 3 post in the minority in the past but will shift down to the No. 4 job this Congress.

Clyburn’s decision frustrated some younger members, who had hoped the new Congress would start with a clean slate. And on Wednesday Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., 61, announced a surprise bid against Clyburn for assistant leader; that election will take place Thursday.

In a letter to colleagues announcing his run, Cicilline said, “I think it is critical that the House Democratic Leadership team fully reflect the diversity of our caucus and the American people by including an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table, which is why I’ve decided to run for Assistant Leader.”

One young Democratic member who is backing Cicilline expressed frustration Wednesday with Clyburn’s decision to run for leadership again. “I think it’s pretty ridiculous that Nancy had to leave. … She was the most effective leader in history and I’m not sure why he [Clyburn] didn’t have to leave with her,” the Democrat said.

In recent years, other young, ambitious and talented Democrats looking to climb the leadership ladder discovered they had nowhere to go but out.

Democratic Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra took an appointment as California’s attorney general and then was named by President Joe Biden as health and human services secretary. Two of Pelosi’s loyal deputies in leadership, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, successfully ran for seats in the Senate once their options ran out.

Others, including Steve Israel of New York, who led both House Democrats’ campaign arm and communications shop, opted for retirement.

Pelosi and Hoyer won’t be going far. Rather than resign, the two said they will remain in Congress. And on Tuesday night, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee unanimously voted to grant Pelosi the ceremonial title of “Speaker Emerita.” The resolution bestowing the honor on Pelosi was offered by Jeffries. 

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi will go down as one of the greatest legislative leaders in American history,” said the Steering Committee Co-Chairs Eric Swalwell, Barbara Lee and Cheri Bustos. “By granting Speaker Pelosi this honorific title, we proudly celebrate her marble-ceiling-smashing and legendary public service.”

Asked about how his leadership style might differ from that of Pelosi — a shrewd legislator who ruled her caucus, at times, with an iron grip — Jeffries seemed to take a team-first view.

“The House Democratic Caucus is at its best when everyone has an opportunity to be on the playing field, playing the right position,” he said.

Jeffries dodged several questions about what it meant for him to be the first Black person to lead either party in Congress.

“I haven’t really had the opportunity to reflect on that,” he said, later adding, “to the extent that I spent any time dwelling on outside narratives or the magnitude of the moment, it would take away from having to make realtime decisions as we prepare to organize for the new Congress.”

Pelosi, in a statement Wednesday, praised the new leadership team, promising “an orderly transition” in the next Congress and expressing gratitude for her time as leader. “Together, this new generation of leaders reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our great nation — and they will reinvigorate our Caucus with their new energy, ideas and perspective,” she said.

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