Rep. Hakeem Jeffries talks making history in Congress and Brooklyn roots

Jeffries, the first Black party leader in the United States Congress, sits down for a special Black History Month primetime interview with theGrio's April D. Ryan.

A new, younger era of Democratic leadership has emerged in Washington – even as the party is currently led by the oldest U.S. president in history. During his primetime State of the Union address this week, President Joe Biden acknowledged a new face of leadership in the 118th Congress: House Minority Leader, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. 

Jeffries, the 52-year-old sneakers and suit-wearing congressman from New York, also happens to be a history maker. He is the first Black person ever to lead a congressional party. 

US House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaks to US Representative Pete Aguilar (D-CA) in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023, ahead of US President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The former New York state lawmaker was elected to Congress to represent the 8th Congressional District in 2013. A married father of two children, Jeffries also shares the same birthday as former President Barack Obama. Nine years separate the ages of both men who are Black trailblazers in American politics. 

To mark Black History Month, theGrio sat down with Jeffries in his congressional office on Capitol Hill. The House minority leader’s office was previously occupied by U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican House speaker; and before him, the office was occupied by Nancy Pelosi.

As America experiences cultural and political growing pains, largely because of a Republican Party seemingly ruled by the ideology of Trumpism rather than traditional party values, Jeffries is humbled as he evaluates his political rise and the opportunity to refresh the government stage. 

”America is premised on the notion of government, of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Jeffries said during our primetime televised interview, which airs on Friday, Feb. 10 on TheGrio TV channel at 9 p.m. ET.

“While democracy is still a work in progress, the fact that I have this opportunity to serve in this position. Someone who was born in Brooklyn Hospital, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Crown Heights  … survived the violence of the crack cocaine epidemic, and somehow landed in the United States Congress and now has the opportunity to serve in this position – that is democracy in action.”

Hakeem Jeffries isn’t just living history; he also occupies a congressional seat that is historic in itself. The former attorney came to Congress ten years ago to fill a seat left vacant by another Brooklyn giant in politics, former U.S. Rep. Ed Towns, who served in Washington for 30 years. 

Before Towns was elected to Congress, he was endorsed by the iconic Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm to replace her after she vacated the seat for her U.S. presidential run in 1972. The “Unbought and Unbossed” trailblazer went down in history as the first Black woman of a major party to run for president of the United States. When Chisholm and Towns served in Congress, the seat was strictly a Brooklyn district. After reapportionment, Jeffries now represents a portion of Brooklyn and Queens. 

Reflecting on the history of Chisholm, Jeffries said, “She never backed down. Unbought. Unbossed. And the thing about her is that she got along when necessary to make things happen for her community with the other side of the aisle. [She] forced them to accept her. And was an incredible trailblazer extraordinaire.”

25th January 1972: US Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the presidency, at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton applauds at right. (Photo by Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

The charismatic Jeffries links Chisholm’s history-making run for the White House to America’s first Black president – as both political icons channeled their campaigns on a message of transformative change: “Her theme was a catalyst for change, and then when Barack Obama finally broke down the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to become the first African-American president upon his election in 2008, his theme was ‘change you can believe in’ a catalyst for change and ultimately led to change you can believe in.” 

Congressman Towns, who was a history maker himself as the first Black person ever to chair the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, marvels at his successor’s rise to one of the top positions in Congress. And if Democrats take back the majority in the House, Jeffries would likely become the most powerful person in the House and only second in the presidential line of succession. 

In an interview with theGrio, Towns quotes scripture describing Jeffries’ political trajectory, saying, “eyes have not seen, nor ears have heard.” Jeffries also spoke highly of his predecessor, describing him as someone who “broke barriers” in Washington, D.C. “He knocked that door down,” said the minority leader.

Towns says part of Jeffries’ success is due to his coalition building. “[He’s] somebody that can talk to everybody,” he said. Hakeem Jeffries’ ability to connect with others is a reflection of his district, which includes a melting pot of people, says Town, from “Hasidic Jews, to those from Pakistan to Latinos and beyond. ”When you come out of a Brooklyn seat … you have to have a really collegial coalition because, generally, the district that you represent is multifaceted.”

As House minority leader, Jeffries is focused on all issues but is still committed to using the power within the legislative branch to deliver on critical issues that impact Black communities across the nation, from policing and criminal justice reform to voting rights. 

April D. Ryan sits down with House Minority Leader U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries in his congressional office on Jan. 31. (Photo: TheGrio TV)

When it comes to policing, Jeffries says, “We clearly have a police violence problem that America has seen over and over and over again.” TheGrio’s sit-down interview happened just days after police body camera footage was released showing Memphis police officers fatally beating an unarmed Black man, Tyre Nichols. 

Nichols’ death has sparked protests and calls for Congress to pass federal police reform, something Leader Jeffries hasn’t given up hope for, despite some pessimism in Washington that Republicans and Democrats can pull it off in a divided Congress. 

“I’m hopeful that Senator Tim Scott, in partnership with Senator Booker, can find a path in the Senate to move bipartisan legislation on police reform forward,” said the congressman. 

However, in 2021, the working legislation, known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, never made it to a vote in the Senate because Democrats and Republicans were unable to find a compromise on police accountability. Similarly, an attempt by Democrats to pass federal voting rights reform, in the forms of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act, tanked in the Senate due to the long-detested filibuster rule. 

Each item will have to generate momentum in the Democratic-controlled Senate, Jeffries notes, as there’s “an absence of Democrats being in control of the agenda in the House.”

In this new congressional session where Republicans now control the House and Democrats hold a tight majority in the Senate, Jeffries thinks there’s “still a solid bipartisan foundation of police reform and voting rights to face a more uncertain future.”  

The rising political star says he also would like to see this Congress tackle meaningful criminal justice reform to “break the back of the prison industrial complex, which we know disproportionately and adversely has impacted communities of color.” 

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 25: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaks at a news conference alongside U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. Leaders Jeffries and Schumer spoke on topics including the House Republican bill called the ‘Fair Tax Act,’ and the ongoing negotiations between the House, Senate and White House over the national debt ceiling. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

And while there may be doubts the two political parties can come together to enact such reform, Jeffries reminds us that Republicans and Democrats were able to pass bipartisan legislation, The First Step Act, during the presidency of Donald Trump. “[It] was a big step but more needs to happen,” he said. 

While working across the aisle is essential to any legislative success in Congress for the next two years, Leader Jeffries will also be working closely with his fellow Democratic leader in the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, also a New Yorker. The two lawmakers, along with President Biden, will have to lean in with a divided Congress to finish the “progress” achieved in the last Congress.

“I expect that President Biden will lean into the fact that his administration has really worked hard to be there for Black farmers or to be there for Black entrepreneurs. To be there for Black small businesses working to recover from the pandemic, and certainly to be there for historic investments of resources in historically black colleges and universities,” said Jeffries. 

“But he also, I think, will recognize that as America is a work in progress and that democracy is a work in progress, you know, the unfinished business to truly achieve a color-blind society remains a work in progress.”

He added, “And he will lean into that for Black America, and I believe for all of America, because Joe Biden, I believe, is authentically committed to making this country the best version of ourselves. And that means opportunity has to exist for every community all across the land.”

Tune in tonight at 9  p.m. ET on TheGrio TV to watch a special Black History Month special featuring history makers Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Maryland Governor Wes Moore.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!