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Meeks to be first Black lawmaker to lead House Foreign Affairs

The New York congressman beat a Californian and a Texan for the gavel of the House's foreign policy-making panel

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., is the first Black man to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committe.
Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., is the first Black man to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committe. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks will make history next year by becoming the first Black lawmaker to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He was elected to the job on Thursday by his Democratic peers.

Meeks, an 11-term member from New York, bested two others to win the gavel. Rep. Brad Sherman of California had the most seniority on the committee but dropped out of the race Tuesday after coming in third place in the Democratic Steering Committee’s endorsement voting.

Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, who came in a distant second in Steering Committee votes, stayed in the race even though he was significantly junior in seniority to Meeks and Sherman on the committee.

The final secret ballot vote by the Democratic Caucus on Thursday was 148-78.  

“Serving many years together on the committee, I’ve seen up close Greg’s deep knowledge of foreign policy issues, his profound commitment to an American foreign policy rooted in our values, and his understanding of the importance of Congress’s role in these matters,” outgoing Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York said in a statement. Engel lost a reelection primary this summer. “I’m confident that he will also carry forward the committee’s tradition of legislating and oversight driven by what’s best for American interests, not partisan gain,” he said.

Though the relatively hawkish Sherman had the most policy experience and Castro enjoyed backing from outside progressive foreign policy groups — and his comparative youth would have sent a message of generational change — Democrats chose to elevate Meeks.

The 67-year-old Queens lawmaker is a former New York state assemblyman and city prosecutor. He is generally well-liked within the Democratic Caucus and seen as able to maintain a working relationship with Republicans — something that is still valued on the historically bipartisan committee.

[Three candidates shape vigorous contest for House Foreign Affairs gavel]

Both Sherman and Castro congratulated Meeks.

“The Steering and Policy Committee recognized Gregory Meeks’s capacity, eloquence, and experience, and the fact that he would make history as the first African American Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Sherman said in a Tuesday statement.

Castro issued a statement Thursday: “I look forward to working together with Chairman Meeks, particularly on our common goals such as promoting diversity at the U.S. State Department and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.”

The elevation of a Black lawmaker to lead the Foreign Affairs Committee — a role that will see Meeks frequently meet with foreign heads of state, ministers and legislators when they visit Washington — was also seen as sending an important symbolic message to the world following four years of President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, a documented steep rise in racially motivated hate crimes and this summer’s anti-racism social justice marches.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who leads the Middle East subcommittee, in a tweet said he was “Thrilled for the history making election of @RepGregoryMeeks as HFAC chair! I am proud to join Rep. Meeks as he works to restore American global leadership & smart, strong, diplomacy!”

“In its nearly 200-year-long history, HFAC has had only one chairperson who was not a white man,” Foreign Policy for America, a progressive organization, said in a statement. “This mirrors the lack of diversity in State Department leadership, a status quo Rep. Meeks has been vocal about improving upon.”

Meeks is expected to reorient the committee away from its heavy emphasis on Middle East policy, which has preoccupied its work for much of the nearly two decades since the Sept.11 terrorist attacks. His foreign policy experience on the committee has focused on Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

He was previously the top Democrat on the Europe subcommittee before relinquishing that post in order to become the chairman in the 116th Congress of the Financial Services Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions Subcommittee. Meeks is the co-chair of the European Union Caucus and has had leadership roles in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which is made up of lawmakers from member nations of the Western military bloc.

Meeks serves as the chair or co-chair of multiple congressional caucuses for South American countries, including Peru, Brazil and Colombia, and has participated in multiple congressional trips to the region.

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