Jeffries formally seeks to be next House Democratic leader

52-year-old New Yorker would be first Black leader of a party caucus

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to his Democratic colleagues on Friday he will run for minority leader in party elections later this month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to his Democratic colleagues on Friday he will run for minority leader in party elections later this month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 18, 2022 at 11:11am

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries officially announced his bid for House Democratic leader Friday, promising to elevate his colleagues’ “individual strengths, interests and areas of expertise.”

“It will be my mission to make sure that every single Member of the Caucus has an authentic seat at the legislative table and the maximum opportunity to excel. That is my promise to you,” he wrote in a four-page letter to his colleagues. 

Jeffries sent individualized versions of the letter — which outlines his vision for the caucus and some initial legislative and electoral goals — to every House Democrat, according to an aide.

The 52-year-old New York Democrat has served in Congress for 10 years, first joining the elected party leadership in 2016 as a co-chair of House Democrats’ messaging arm. In 2018, after Democrats took back the majority on messaging he helped craft, Jeffries was elected Democratic Caucus chair, a post he holds now. 

Caucus rules limit the chair from serving more than two terms, so it was likely that Jeffries was going to aim for something higher this year. His path to the top was made easier Thursday when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would not pursue a leadership spot next year, when Republicans will have a narrow majority. 

The Democratic Caucus will hold its leadership elections and organizing meetings for the next Congress on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. 

If elected Democratic leader, Jeffries would be the first Black member to lead a party caucus in Congress. 

Jeffries said in the letter that he hopes to “chart a return to regular order.” House power has been centralized in the party leadership suites for decades. It will be hard for Jeffries to fully change that while his party is in the minority, but he indicated there are still changes he can make from within the Democratic Caucus. 

“Ranking members and committees in their entirety must be fully empowered to work their will. Meaningful policymaking and public engagement opportunities should be robustly distributed regardless of length of service,” he said. “High-profile leadership assignments should be spread out throughout the Caucus. In addition, the Steering and Policy Committee should be fully empowered as a vehicle for broader engagement.”

Jeffries is not expected to face a challenge for the top leadership spot. Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark, currently assistant speaker, announced Friday she would seek to be Democratic whip, the No. 2 leadership position. California Rep. Pete Aguilar is running for a promotion from caucus vice chair to chair, which is expected to be changed to the No. 3 ranking position. 

Clark and Aguilar are not likely to be challenged either, especially since the outgoing top three — Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn — have rallied around the “next generation.”

“In the 118th Congress, House Democrats will be led by a trio that reflects our beautiful diversity of our nation. Chair Jeffries, Assistant Speaker Clark and Vice Chair Aguilar know that, in our Caucus, diversity is our strength and unity is our power,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday. “A new day is dawning — and I am confident that these new leaders will capably lead our Caucus and the Congress.”

Hoyer, like Pelosi, is stepping aside from leadership but remaining in Congress. He plans to return to the House Appropriations Committee. Clyburn announced Friday he will run for assistant Democratic leader, which will become the No. 4 ranking leadership post, behind caucus chair.

‘Political and messaging struggle’

House Republicans held their leadership elections Wednesday, but Speaker-nominee Kevin McCarthy still has to win over more supporters if he’s going to win a floor election in January, which requires support from a majority of the full House. While some races have yet to be called, Republicans are not expected to have more than a four-seat advantage over Democrats. 

Three dozen Republicans voted against McCarthy in the conference election. They were mostly conservative House Freedom Caucus members saying McCarthy isn’t willing to change enough rules and procedures to relinquish some control and better empower rank-and-file membership.

Jeffries briefly addressed the new but narrow Republican majority in his letter, saying Democrats will have to take on a unique role in the minority “given the dangerous and dysfunctional nature of the Extreme MAGA Republicans.”

“It has sometimes been said that the job of the majority is to govern, while the job of the minority is to get back into the majority,” he said. “We must do both.”

While Jeffries said he hopes the parties can work together at times to deliver results for the American people, he said Republicans’ current legislative plans would not accomplish anything meaningful and thus Democrats must continue to advance their ideas to address kitchen table, pocket-book issues. 

“House Democrats will be locked in a fierce governmental, political and messaging struggle,” he said. “In this regard, our Caucus must unify with purpose, communicate with discipline, legislate with precision and partner with the Biden Administration to vigorously address the continuing challenges impacting our constituents.”

Addressing security concerns 

Jeffries also took space in his letter to address member security concerns after an assailant looking for Pelosi broke into her San Francisco home when she wasn’t there and attacked her husband with a hammer.

“We have entered an era of unprecedented extremism, disinformation and political violence that threatens our ability to serve the public without fear or favor,” he said.  

Jeffries proposed establishing a member security task force that would solicit input from across the caucus in documenting members’ challenges and experiences in regards to security and “expeditiously recommend a complete set of legislative, administrative and executive steps that we can immediately act upon.”

He also wants to strengthen coordination among the House sergeant-at-arms, Capitol Police and local law enforcement. In the interim, Jeffries suggested that members tap into the additional $10,000 in their representational allowances to secure their residences and hire in-district security personnel.

Jeffries added: “In terms of public safety for all Americans, I look forward to continuing our robust legislative and policy efforts to combat crime, crush gun violence and promote safer communities.”