Hakeem Jeffries will do a great job as leader of House Democrats

OPINION: Jeffries has big shoes to fill in succeeding Nancy Pelosi as the top Democrat in the House because she has been one of the most effective speakers in U.S. history. He's up to the task.

Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., is seen after being elected to the leader of House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday, November 30, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

In all of American history, no Black person has ever led a political party in either house of Congress. That finally changed Wednesday, when House Democrats elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as their leader. I know he will do a great job.

Jeffries will become the second-highest Black person in the U.S. government in January, after Vice President Kamala Harris. While he will replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as the leader of House Democrats, he won’t take on her role as the powerful speaker of the House. That’s because Republicans narrowly captured majority control of the chamber by a 220-213 margin (with two races still undecided) in the November midterm elections.

At 52, Jeffries is 30 years younger than Pelosi and is likely to have many years of service in the House ahead of him. Once Democrats recapture majority control of the House, which I hope will happen in the 2024 elections, Jeffries will be the odds-on favorite to become speaker. 

Like Jeffries, Nancy Pelosi was a trailblazer, becoming the first woman to serve as speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011 and then again from 2019 until Republicans again take control of the House in January. 

And like Pelosi, Jeffries is a mainstream Democrat who puts public service above politics and seeks cooperation rather than confrontation with Republicans whenever possible. 

In Congress, the incoming Democratic leader has proven to be a brilliant legislative strategist and tactician and someone who understands the importance of building coalitions to reinforce the bridge to the 21st century that President Bill Clinton spoke of so eloquently in office. House Democrats are lucky to have someone with Jeffries’ skill set leading them.

In an interview with The Atlantic last year, Jeffries described himself as “a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now.” However, making clear he’s no radical, he added: “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.”  

On a personal note, I invited Jeffries to speak at Howard University, where I teach, in February 2020 as part of the King Lecture Series. He enthusiastically accepted. When the event was changed to a Zoom meeting because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he spoke powerfully to students and others in an amazing way that connected as few speakers can. I could see then that he was moving up the political ladder. 

The historic nature of Jeffries’ ascent to top House Democratic leadership is all the more impressive in light of the fact that Black people have always been a rarity in Congress, though our numbers have increased sharply in recent years. A total of 12,421 people have served as members of the House, Senate or both since 1789, but only 175 Black people are among them, beginning in 1870. That’s just a fraction over 1 percent. 

Disgracefully, Black members of Congress are also far outnumbered by white members of Congress who enslaved Blacks before emancipation. According to a Washington Post investigation published earlier this year, at some point in their lives more than 1,800 House and Senate members owned Black fellow human beings. I bet they could never have imagined seeing Hakeem Jeffries in the position of a party leader in the House.

We’ve come a long way — but still have a long way to go.

Jeffries has a solid-gold resume. He graduated with a political science degree from the State University of New York in Binghamton and earned a master of public policy degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from New York University. After clerking for a federal judge, he worked as a lawyer in private practice and then served in the New York State Assembly from 2007 to 2013.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, theGrio.com
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) talks to reporters following the weekly Democratic Caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on June 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Since 2013 Jeffries has served in the U.S. House representing parts of the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. He was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus — the fifth-highest leadership post — in 2018 and is the former whip of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Jeffries will have his work cut out for him dealing with an extremist Republican House majority determined to obstruct most legislation supported by President Joe Biden and Democrats. The overriding goal of Republicans is to prevent Democrats from accomplishing anything, so they can blame the Democratic Party for the gridlock and then recapture the White House and U.S. Senate, and increase their majority in the U.S. House in the 2024 elections.

Rather than focusing on legislating, House Republicans want to concentrate on investigating the Biden administration and the business dealings of the president’s son Hunter for the next two years. This will do nothing to slow inflation, which GOP candidates claimed on the campaign trail was their top priority. In fact, this won’t accomplish anything at all for the American people.

And let’s not mention crime, mass shootings or the ongoing threats from COVID. Again, the GOP will be missing in action unless they can come up with ways to point fingers at others or defray a “woke agenda.”

Jeffries has big shoes to fill in succeeding Pelosi as the top Democrat in the House because she has been one of the most effective speakers in U.S. history. She was able to lead House Democrats because she is a good listener and understands how to shape public policy. All Americans owe her a debt of gratitude for accomplishing an enormous amount to strengthen our nation and improve their lives. I am personally grateful for her leadership in the passage of the Affordable Care Act or simply “Obamacare.”

At 82, Pelosi has concluded it is time to pass the torch to a younger generation. I can think of no one better than Hakeem Jeffries to carry on her work and build on her achievements in the service of the American people.

Donna Brazile Headshot thegrio.com

Donna Brazile is an ABC News Contributor, veteran political strategist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. She managed the Gore campaign in 2000 and has lectured at more than 225 colleges and universities on race, diversity, women, leadership and restoring civility in politics. Brazile is the author of several books, including the New York Times’ bestseller “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” @DonnaBrazile

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