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The Making of Hakeem Jeffries
From Insurgent Challenger to Insulated Incumbent: A deep dive on the new House Democratic Leader's storied rise through Brooklyn Politics
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Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi capped off her historic career by announcing that she would step down as House Democratic Leader - along with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn - clearing the way for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the current Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, to ascend several positions on the leadership ladder and replace Pelosi in the 118th Congress.
Despite being in Congress for less than a decade, Jeffries quickly climbed the party’s leadership ranks - ingratiating himself with liberal reformers while currying favor with establishment moderates at home and in Washington. Now, at the forefront of a generation of Democrats notably more diverse than their predecessors but not as progressive as their successors, Jeffries will have to mend fences to keep his coalition intact - something the Brooklyn Democrat has oftentimes struggled to do - given he is now poised to become the Speaker of the House when Democrats retake the lower chamber.
Born at Brooklyn Hospital and raised in Crown Heights, Jeffries was no stranger to alternating between New York and Washington D.C.
Long before his time in Congress, Jeffries spent much of his twenties criss-crossing the nation’s respective cultural and political capitals - SUNY Binghamton for undergrad, a Master’s degree from Georgetown, graduating magna cum laude from NYU Law School - before landing at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. For onlookers, it became quite clear that Jeffries was destined to rise.
Indeed, Jeffries’ first runs for State Assembly were profiled in The New York Times - getting more press in defeat than some do in victory. He was dubbed “Brooklyn’s Barack Obama” before even being elected to Congress. Jeffries’ momentum inspired a sitting Congressman of thirty-years to retire rather than face assured defeat at his hands. Less than six-years into his Congressional tenure, the writing was on the wall that Jeffries’ would be the next Democratic Speaker. A challenge to his candidacy did not even materialize.
Whether it is sheer will, blind luck, or raw political acumen - or some combination of three - Jeffries' ascent had an aura of inevitability to it. If he had not chosen the Federal route, it is not implausible he could have been State Attorney General or the Mayor of New York City. Perhaps that’s why The New York Times once dispatched metro reporters to cover the then twenty-nine year old’s challenge to a veteran Assembly Member.
Ultimately, there will be much ink spilled over what Jeffries’ appointment means for National Democrats and how this will affect politics on the D.C. circuit. Instead of rehashing those themes and ideas , this piece is designed to explore the local dynamics behind Jeffries’ rise, contextualize his place in New York City’s political landscape, while detailing his increasingly-antagonistic relationship with the burgeoning leftist movement that has caught fire in Jeffries’ political backyard.
Editor’s Note: Due to the length of the post, links to articles will not be available in the email newsletter version. For links, one must view this post in a web-browser, where it will be updated.
“The issue in this race is not age - yes, the assemblyman is older, I'm younger. It's not religion - yes, the assemblyman is a practicing Muslim and I grew up in the Cornerstone Baptist Church.” (The New York Times)
Yet, before Hakeem Jeffries could conclude his closing statement, Assembly Member Roger Green interjected:
“Practicing Muslim? Where'd that come from? Are you trying to polarize our community?”
Green proceeded to walk off the debate stage.
Indeed, no love was lost between Green, the veteran incumbent who had spent two decades in Albany, and Jeffries, the ambitious lawyer on the right side of thirty. Yet, their primary battle in the Summer of 2000 was emblematic of the cyclical nature of politics.
Twenty-years prior, Green was the upstart insurgent who outlasted Harvey Strelzin, a loyal ally of the Brooklyn Democratic machine, after three rounds of voting in the Democratic Primary (the margin was so close, re-votes were ordered. Green won the first vote on September 9th by twenty-six ballots, lost the initial re-vote on October 21st by 38 votes, but prevailed in the final re-vote - coincidentally held on Halloween - by 350 votes)
Now the roles were reversed. Twenty years removed from infamous Brooklyn party boss Meade Esposito aiding Strelzin against Green’s challenge, Brooklyn Democratic Chair Clarence Norman would now protect the latter in his battle with Jeffries.
Much of Jeffries’ case against Green centered around the notion that the Assembly Member had lost his effectiveness, as Jeffries highlighted Green’s alleged inability to improve economic prospects along the district’s business corridors - particularly Fulton Street - in addition to assailing his “lackluster” constituent services.
“I believe that, as long as I can make the people aware that there is a credible alternate choice, there will be an opportunity to be successful. After all, that's exactly what he did 20 years ago.'' (The New York Times)
Since assuming office, Green had remained insulated from any serious challengers. Even when he lost the Democratic Party line in 1986 as a result of a careless error, voters in the 57th Assembly District comfortably re-elected him on the Liberal Party ballot line.
Despite an ill-fated run for Public Advocate 1997, Green was poised to be in the mix to succeed Rep. Edolphus Towns in the 10th Congressional District, whenever Towns called it quits. As chairman of the State’s Black and Hispanic Legislative Caucus, he held significant influence in Albany, and was credited with playing a key role in thwarting Rudy Guliani’s efforts to run for a third term as Mayor. Withstanding charges of complacency, Green did not fit the mold of a sitting-duck incumbent. The opposite was true, it would be especially difficult to knock him off.
Yet, even if Green withstood Jeffries’ vigorous challenge, it threatened to imperil his future prospects.
''Hakeem is the type of young man that we have struggled to support and, hopefully, to empower. I don't think that we in the party have made a concerted enough effort to get people like Hakeem involved in the political process. When I look at his resume, I think that he could offer a lot.'' (The New York Times)
The district, including the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, in addition to parts of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights (altogether three-quarters Black and twelve percent Latino in the 1990 census) was beginning to gentrify around the turn of the century - particularly south of Fort Greene Park, as lush, tree-lined streets complete with Brownstones and townhouses attracted more upwardly-mobile professionals.
Many of these young professionals, who could be described politically as “liberal reformers”, were drawn to Jeffries’ campaign - which harnessed anti-establishment energy against Green and the Brooklyn Democratic Party to the tune of a large volunteer base.
The much-coveted New York Times endorsement was the final domino to fall in the race. While the Editorial Board commended Jeffries for mounting a “formidable challenge” while making “a straightforward case that the district has not prospered and the district office is not efficient enough for constituents,” the Gray Lady backed Green, lauding him as a “thoughtful and diligent leader in Albany, who often tackled difficult issues like children's health and welfare.”
As a first time candidate, Jeffries always faced an uphill-climb, but The Times endorsement deprived him of what could have been a crucial boost, given Green’s array of institutional support.
In the September 12th Primary, Jeffries fell short, netting 41% of the vote - or 3,948 ballots to Green’s 5,712.
Undeterred and eager to build off his strong performance, Jeffries quickly geared up for a rematch in 2002.
However, given New York State’s decennial redistricting, a process controlled and dominated by Albany power brokers (like Green), the contours of the race, and the district itself, would be different two years later.
Upon the State Legislature’s approval of the final maps, the peripherals of the 57th Assembly District had been altered, namely to benefit Green’s re-election chances. The new district added a couple blocks in Crown Heights and Clinton Hill, while jettisoning multiple Park Slope precincts in favor of extending the district to north to include parts of Downtown Brooklyn, in addition to the Farragut, Ingersoll, and Whitman public housing developments - intent to add Black and Latino residents to the district to preserve it’s status under the Voting Rights Act. Yet most controversially, Jeffries’ Prospect Heights residence was carved out of the district by just one block.
''It was a desperate act by a career politician trying to save his government job.”
While Jeffries could still legally run against Green in 2002 - since it was a redistricting year, Jeffries only needed residence within the County - it kneecapped any potential future challenges to Green, potentially in ’04 or later, unless Jeffries established residency in the district. While Green claimed he had no knowledge of Jeffries’ residence, that assertion is dubious at best.
“Brooklyn politics can be rough, but that move was gangster,” Jeffries later said.
All told, the redistricting process had been kind to Green - a result of structural safeguards in New York’s process - as the besieged Assembly Member would have better luck winning public housing residents north of Fort Greene Park than affluent liberals on Park Slope’s named streets. Yet, Green was not out of the woods yet - even enlisting veteran consultant Bill Lynch, one of the architects behind both of David Dinkins’ Mayoral campaigns.
The core themes of the campaign from yesteryear did not change. Constituent Services. Economic Development. Public Schools. The overarching message coming from Jeffries was that after twenty-two years, Green lacked a vision for the district, much less a plan to execute it.
As was the case in 2000, Jeffries captured enthusiasm with a strong volunteer army, which he channeled into his new political club, the Brooklyn Freedom Democratic Association. Once again, Jeffries fundraised aggressively - tapping into Wall Street and pro-Charter Schools circles - exceeding Green’s own war chest for much of the race, until the incumbent rallied financial interests at the eleventh hour.
Ultimately, even with an added two years of name-recognition and campaign infrastructure - the results and dynamics of 2002 mirrored the first tilt between Green and Jeffries. Despite significant promise - neighborhood institutional support, like the Brooklyn Democratic Party and large labor unions, coupled with the New York Times, once more sided with Green. In the rematch, both Jeffries raw vote and overall vote share decreased from two years prior, as Green netted over 62% of the vote.
Reckoning with a second defeat, Jeffries was staring at an electoral crossroads. Besting Green was never a fool’s errand, but it had grown markedly harder with the reconfigured district lines and the incumbent’s redoubled efforts to ingratiate himself to voters. Now outside the boundaries of the 57th Assembly District, the once inevitable rise of Hakeem Jeffries had stalled - with no obvious path forward.
In many respects, Jeffries’ career arc is closely linked to another ambitious Central Brooklyn politician who also rose to prominence at the turn of the millennium, Letitia “Tish” James. While Jeffries’ assailed Roger Green as a complacent, do-nothing elected, James worked for the Assembly Member, describing him as her mentor. Like her pseudo-rival, James also experienced consecutive bouts of electoral heartbreak, twice-losing to insurgent James Davis in the race for the 35th City Council District, once in the Democratic Primary, and again on the Working Families Party ballot line in the general - despite having support from both Green and the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
After the tragic assassination of Davis, a longtime friend and ally of Jeffries, the two politicos would cross paths for the first time. James, Jeffries, and even Eric Adams were floated as potential candidates to replace Davis on the Council, with the late Councilman himself once tapping Jeffries as his preferred replacement should he be elected to higher office. Organized labor favored Jeffries for the seat, but Davis’ brother Geoffrey insisted on running, despite urging from Jeffries to the contrary. With Jeffries stepping aside, Davis easily captured the Democratic nomination.
Befallen by his turbulent history of domestic violence and erratic behavior, Davis was thoroughly crushed by Tish James, who was nominated by the Working Families Party (Jeffries was considered, but he never put his name forward). Despite running on a third-party ballot line, James coalesced support from across Brooklyn’s political establishment - with the race marking the first and only time a WFP candidate has bested a Democrat in a general election.
Once more, Jeffries was left to rue a missed opportunity. That frustration would only be compounded the following year, when Roger Green resigned from the Assembly following pleading guilty to billing the state for false travel expenses. However, with Jeffries unable to challenge him, and Eric Adams also declining to enter the race, Green retained support from Brooklyn Democratic Chair Clarence Norman, in addition to James and a myriad of other interest groups - recapturing the Democratic nomination, and the seat itself in November’s general election, quite easily. As a result of Green’s gerrymander, Jeffries best chance at dethroning the veteran Assembly Member had fallen by the wayside.
However, Roger Green giveth and Roger Green taketh away. Whether impatient, bored, or simply looking for a change - one of Albany’s most influential leaders was no longer content merely waiting out the retirement of Ed Towns. Just like that, Green declared his intention to challenge Towns (alongside City Council Member Charles Barron) - freeing up the 57th Assembly District for new leadership. Jeffries leapt at the chance, moving his wife and children two blocks back into the district.
Once the insurgent, Jeffries was now the the odds-on-favorite of the political establishment, fundraising at a breakneck pace to the tune of six-figures, all while assembling an ideologically-diverse coalition, from the Brooklyn Democratic Organization to the Working Families Party. Institutional support that had once shunned Jeffries now rushed to his side.
The campaign’s preeminent fault line was the proposed Atlantic Yards development, which Bill Batson, Jeffries’ chief opponent and a critic of the development itself, charged the rising star with tacitly supporting.
Despite contention over the development, Batson had no chance, as Jeffries married wide-ranging support from organized labor with a tremendous financial advantage - winning by forty points.
Meanwhile, Green placed a distant third in the NY10 primary behind Barron and Towns - including with the voters in his home Assembly District. As the incumbent Congressman lived to see another day, Green (6,237 votes - 15.19%) may have spoiled Barron’s chances (15,345 votes - 37.38%) of pulling a shock upset over Towns (19,469 - 47.43%) by splintering the anti-incumbent vote. In defeat, Green subsequently retired.
In the State Capitol, Jeffries wasted no time building his pedigree - sponsoring over seventy bills during his first three terms in office - including co-sponsoring the bill that legalized gay marriage in the state, in addition to passing his own legislation known as the Stop and Frisk database bill, that barred police from collecting the names and addresses of those stopped but not arrested during street searches.
Quickly, the buzz surrounding Jeffries, already quite significant for a junior member of the State Assembly, swelled to a fever pitch - with all eyes fixated on a potential challenge to Rep. Ed Towns - a longtime staple of the (recently renumbered) 8th Congressional District.
While Towns gave no public indication he was considering retirement, he appeared particularly vulnerable. In the aforementioned bout between Towns and Green - it was Charles Barron, a former-Black Panther who represented East New York in the City Council, who came relatively close to knocking off the Congressman. During the campaign, Towns and his allies made the near-fatal mistake of ignoring the outspoken Barron, woefully underestimating his support throughout the district’s working class enclaves. Ultimately, Barron fell short in part because Green split the anti-Towns vote, and he failed to raise a requisite sum (just north of $100K) to meaningfully compete with Towns’ seven-figure war chest.
Already a scant presence in the district, Towns’ status was diminished in Washington as well - where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had replaced him as the top Democrat on the powerful Oversight and Reform Committee (Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings was given the nod).
Undoubtedly, Jeffries smelled blood in the water - and fancied himself as the one who could retire the incumbent.
Jeffries teased the run for years, famously being dubbed “Brooklyn’s Barack Obama” in an Observer profile by David Freedlander - being coy about his plans while embarking on the all-too-familiar Central Brooklyn church circuit tour - “I certainly don’t envision being in the Assembly for the balance of my career.”
Finally, Jeffries formed an exploratory committee in the Spring of 2011. While his rhetoric on the race was subdued - his website did not mention Towns by name and he largely declined to comment on the campaign - the writing was on the wall, as Jeffries quickly began fundraising.
Tish James, then a City Councilmember in Central Brooklyn - was rumored to also be interested in the seat. For the second time, Jeffries and James nearly faced off in the electoral arena, with James instead opting to wait - perhaps weary of a fractured, hyper-competitive primary - eventually being elected as New York City’s Public Advocate a year later. The moment marked a crossroads between the two, with James choosing to remain in City government while Jeffries attempted the jump to the Federal level.
The race was shaping up to be an intriguing battle between Towns, a besieged thirty-year incumbent, Jeffries, an adept rising star known for coalition building, and Barron, a self-proclaimed Black Radical Socialist.
Yet, as 2012 came around, Towns was woefully unprepared - Jeffries had already raced out to a big fundraising lead. Even when the Congressman tapped allies for help, he still trailed Jeffries. In advance of the primary in late June, Towns abruptly announced in April that he would no longer be seeking re-election. All of a sudden, it was down to Jeffries and Barron.
In the wake of Towns’ departure, Jeffries benefitted from an array of earned media that contrasted him with Barron - who was frequently described as provocative, defiant and controversial - a “throwback to another era” - as opposed to Jeffries, who was portrayed as modern coalition builder in the mold of “President Obama, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick.”
“Jeffries has been viewed as a rising star in New York politics with his ability to bring together white and black, rich and poor, the gentrifiers and the gentrified.” (The New York Times)
The discernible differences between Jeffries and Barron - from style to ideology - were evident throughout the campaign, with the impending result framed as a referendum on the future of Black political leadership, not just in New York City, but throughout the United States.
Indeed, African American representation was intrinsic to the district itself. Created in 1982 through the Voting Rights Act, Black Brooklyn’s Congressional representation doubled upon the elections of Ed Towns and Major Owens in the newly-minted 11th and 12th Congressional Districts. The borough’s two majority Black Congressional districts loosely bordered one another around Atlantic Avenue, with Towns’ seat anchoring Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York - primarily comprised of Black Americans - while the neighboring district repped by Major Owens (then Yvette Clarke) united Central Brooklyn’s Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods of Crown Heights and East Flatbush.
Even after the most recent round of redistricting, the district’s core did not change - but the ethnic and class composition varied considerably - from the rapid gentrifying blocks of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, to low-income housing developments in Brownsville, East New York, and Coney Island, not to mention a significant share of homeowners, from more-conservative white ethnics in Howard Beach and Mill Basin, to middle-class West-Indians attempting to build generational wealth in Canarsie.
Fissures in progressive politics, that would only be magnified over the coming decade, also reared their head during the primary. Jeffries faced criticism for fundraising aggressively from Wall Street executives, pro-charter school lobbyists, police unions, and real estate developers - to the tune of over seven-hundred thousand dollars - whereas Barron’s reserves barely exceeded seventy-thousand, relying primarily on personal loans to his campaign.
While the majority of media reduced Barron to a series of soundbites - particularly with respect to foreign policy - the candid councilmember made a concerted effort to not provide fodder to the press and remain on message.
“They told me, when I get up here, ‘Don’t say nothing about foreign policy, Charles, because they going to use that one against you.’ Use it!”
Jeffries, thus far gobbling up endorsements - from powerful unions like 32BJ and 1199 SEIU, to New York power brokers, including Joe Crowley and Chuck Schumer - all while enjoying a tremendous fundraising advantage, was content to ignore Barron. With two weeks left, that all changed.
First, Barron shocked the political establishment by nabbing the support of DC-37, the City’s largest public employees union. Then, the East New York Councilman scored a surprise endorsement from the outgoing Ed Towns - cresting the former Black Panther’s momentum as the race entered the homestretch.
What had once appeared impossible - the cash-strapped and controversial Barron upsetting a well-funded pol tapped for stardom like Jeffries - now seemed, at the very least, plausible.
Towns’ well-documented contempt towards Vito Lopez, then Chair of the Kings County Democratic Party, undoubtedly factored into his endorsement of Barron. Before Lopez resigned in disgrace following multiple allegations of sexual harassment, the dynamic between Brooklyn Boss and Jeffries was conciliatory - with the latter adopting a “pro-reform, but not anti-Vito line.” While Jeffries endorsed one of Lopez’s most outspoken critics, Lincoln Restler, for District Leader - he notably skipped the press conference - carefully never crossing Lopez publicly - instead routinely praising the Chair. In spite of dogged Barron’s criticism of his opponent’s relationship with Lopez, Jeffries’ support held firm with reform voters - many of whom were represented by Jeffries in the 57th Assembly District.
Many political operatives feared that Barron’s late break would propel him to a razor-thin majority in what promised to be a low-turnout primary. However, Barron’s momentum would completely evaporate heading into Primary Day.
Fifteen days before the election, former Mayor Ed Koch, Rep. Jerry Nadler, and other prominent Jewish elected officials headlined a press conference condemning Barron’s candidacy. Those in attendance highlighted Barron’s comments expressing sympathies toward Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi. A vociferous critic of Israel, Barron compared conditions in the Gaza Strip - as a result of the Israeli government’s blockade - to “a virtual death camp,” which further angered the Jewish elected officials. While Jeffries did not attend the presser, the officials all endorsed him in an effort to appeal to the district’s Jewish voters - from secular Jews in Brownstone Brooklyn to Soviet immigrants in Brighton Beach.
Soon after, in the rarest act of unity, all three of New York City’s major newspapers, The New York Times, The Daily News, and The Post published editorials that not only endorsed Jeffries, but rebuked Barron. Soon after, Jeffries was invited to an Obama fundraiser in Manhattan where he had his picture taken with the President. The photo was circulated throughout the district and essentially implied an endorsement.
Editor’s Note: Five days before the primary, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, released a video endorsing Barron, praising his anti-Israel views, while disparaging Jeffries with racial epithets. Barron rejected the toxic endorsement, but was humiliated, as the news was seized and circulated by Jeffries.
“In the closing days, a clear contrast was evident between the outspoken and unapologetic Barron, who expressed little remorse for alienating broad swaths of voters, and Jeffries, who was content to brand Barron as divisive, while presenting himself as a unifier working to ride a diverse coalition to victory.” (The Narrative Wars)
In reality, outraised by a factor of 10-to-1 with an avalanche of media denouncing his candidacy, Barron stood no chance.
On Primary Day, Jeffries cruised to victory, winning over 71% of the vote (compared to Barron’s 28%) - a commanding result.
Jeffries edged Barron (53% to 47%) in the councilmember’s East New York stronghold, while netting approximately 60% of the vote in Brownsville, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. However, the Jeffries blowout was largely due to colossal margins in the district’s other pockets. At the heart of Jeffries’ political base - Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill - the Assemblymember won over 80% of the vote. These overwhelming margins were replicated with homeowners (across racial lines) in the district’s southeastern belt, as Jeffries commandingly won the Black vote in Canarsie and Flatlands, while also crushing Barron with whites in GOP-friendly neighborhoods, like Howard Beach, Marine Park, and Bergen Beach. Amongst Russian speaking immigrants and Soviet Jews in Brighton and Manhattan Beach, Jeffries topped 95% of the vote - surpassing 9 votes from every 10 throughout the Coney Island peninsula.
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The swift ascension of Jeffries did not stall upon his arrival to Washington. In the nation’s capital, Jeffries emerged as a prominent voice for criminal justice reform - particularly after the death of Eric Garner - while earning a seat on the judiciary committee and securing an appointment as whip for the Congressional Black Caucus.
A vocal supporter of Israel - once commonplace in mainstream Democratic politics - Jeffries supported the 2015 Iran deal, but notably condemned the Obama administration for failing to veto a resolution, put forth by the UN Security Council, concerning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
Back home, it is wise to examine Jeffries’ role in City politics essentially in two-parts - with the summer of 2018 serving as the inflection point. The Brooklyn congressman quickly used his cache to help usher allies Walter Mosley and Laurie Cumbo into office (Mosley filled Jeffries’ old seat in the 57th Assembly, while Cumbo succeeded Tish James in the 35th Council District). Jeffries is credited with delivering a crucial endorsement of Ken Thompson, which spurred other members of the City’s delegation to back the challenger’s bid to unseat incumbent Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes, whose office was marred by corruption scandals. Ultimately, Thompson prevailed - becoming Brooklyn’s first Black District Attorney. After backing Comptroller Bill Thompson against Bill de Blasio in the 2013 Mayoral Primary, Jeffries - a frequent critic of de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton - was floated as a potential primary challenger to the incumbent, which he declined.
Early on, Jeffries allied himself with Rep. Joe Crowley, not only a Congressional colleague, but the Chairman of the infamous “Queens Machine.” Crowley, the House Democratic Caucus Chair, was laying the groundwork to succeed California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Speaker - either via Pelosi’ retirement, or a direct challenge. A rising star from the neighboring borough, Jeffries was a fundamental building-block to any coalition Crowley hoped to assemble. Given that Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn - the three ranking Democrats above him on the leadership ladder - were a generation older, Crowley was in pole position to benefit from a changing of the guard in leadership.
You all know what happened next.
Crowley’s stunning defeat at the hands of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marked a watershed moment in Democratic Party politics. Insurgent leftism had broken the door down, causing a tremor that rippled from Junction Boulevard to Capitol Hill - leaving Jeffries, not even six years into his tenure in Washington, with a golden opportunity to fill the power vacuum.
The vote to succeed Crowley as House Democratic Caucus Chair was close and contentious. In spite of being a lame-duck Congressman, Crowley still presided over the vote - between Jeffries and California Rep. Barbara Lee, who is revered by progressives for her lone vote against authorizing the use of military force in the wake of 9/11. According to reporting from Ryan Grim of The Intercept, Crowley told a considerable number of House Democrats that Lee had cut a check to Ocasio-Cortez - “painting her as part of the insurgency that incumbents in Congress feel threatened by.” What Crowley failed to disclose during his chicanery was that Lee’s $1,000 check to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign committee came two weeks after she had defeated Crowley - a common gesture designed to welcome new members. Instead, Crowley insinuated that Lee supported Ocasio-Cortez in an attempt to push undecided members to back Jeffries’ bid for Caucus Chair. The gambit worked, with Jeffries winning with 123 votes to Lee’s 113 - a margin of six swing voters.
“Those rumors took place and that was very unfair,” Lee told The Intercept.
Even though he prevailed in the leadership vote, the fallout from Ocasio-Cortez’s triumph hit Jeffries close to home. Justice Democrats, one of the ascending organization’s that aided her upset, signaled a desire to primary Jeffries. From that moment forward, his attacks against the party’s ascendant left flank only sharpened.
Publicly, the Central Brooklyn Congressman chalked up the victories of AOC and fellow-socialist Julia Salazar as a byproduct of gentrification - with a narrative emerging that white, professional class progressives powered left-wing candidates to victory in neighborhoods with changing racial and class compositions.
Justice Democrats would strike again in the five boroughs - but it would not come at Jeffries’ expense. His Congressional colleague, Eliot Engel, a staunch pro-Israel supporter who chaired the House Foreign Affairs committee, would not be so lucky. Infamously, Engel - haggling Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. for speaking time at a presser commemorating the death of George Floyd - was caught on a hot mic commenting, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” a crass remark which essentially doomed his campaign.
Amidst an exodus of support from Engel to middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, Jeffries doubled down on Engel - calling his gaffe “inartful” but nonetheless endorsing him ten days before the primary. Bowman’s victory - a fifteen point drubbing amidst high voter turnout - was spearheaded by his dominant performance amongst middle-class Black communities - like Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Co-Op City and Mount Vernon - neighborhoods that have traditionally not backed insurgent left candidates. While race (Engel was white, Bowman was Black) undoubtedly played a role in the margins throughout the northeast Bronx, detractors of Bowman - who was also backed by Ocasio-Cortez - and the political currents he embodied, were left flat-footed.
One of the most interesting tidbits from Edward-Isaac Dovere’s Atlantic piece on Jeffries is that the new House Democratic Leader and Bowman are frequent “texting-buddies.” In spite of Jeffries’ endorsement of Engel, there is goodwill between the two, partially centered around their work with the Congressional Black Caucus - with Bowman immediately backing Jeffries leadership bid. During this year’s redistricting fiasco, it seems inevitable that Jeffries, given his stature in the Democratic Caucus, caught wind of “senior House Democrats, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and forces aligned with Eliot Engel” prodding Mondaire Jones to run against Bowman under the re-drawn lines - as reported by David Freedlander of NYMag.
I would be very interested to know how Jeffries reacted to such conversations.
National media often link Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez - for good reason, both were Justice Democrat candidates who dispatched longtime incumbents and are now headline members of “The Squad” - yet, Jeffries, specifically their respective relationships to him, is a key delineator between the two. It is hard to imagine Jeffries or Ocasio-Cortez (or any other member of the Squad) speaking on-the-record about one another for a national story - much less offering praise to the other party - in the manner in which both Bowman and Jeffries do. Given the political left’s uneasy relationship with Jeffries - a dynamic captured well in Dovere’s piece - coupled with Jeffries moves on the local level - this is noteworthy.
Nowhere is the energy more palpable for progressive and socialist politics than New York City left-trending pockets - particularly in Western Queens and North Brooklyn - in close proximity to Jeffries’ base.
The progressive primary phenomena was not limited to just the Congressional level. The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, another Ocasio-Cortez endorser, began recruiting candidates to challenge state legislature incumbents from the left - a strategy which would inevitably pit them against Jeffries.
In a critical test of Jeffries’ influence, his protege and successor in the State Assembly, Walter Mosley, was defeated by DSA-backed nurse Phara Souffrant-Forrest, the same summer of Bowman’s triumph (albeit, much farther north on the 5 train). Also that cycle, fellow DSA endorsee Jabari Brisport, a former field organizer for Ocasio-Cortez and Green Party candidate for City Council, won an open State Senate seat in an overlapping Central Brooklyn district. While Brisport’s opponent, Tremaine Wright, was an ally of Eric Adams - not Jeffries - the symbolism of two unapologetic socialists winning contested races in the Congressman’s backyard - particularly the 57th Assembly District - did not sit well with Jeffries.
“The socialist left is on the rise, particularly in neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents are being gentrified out of existence.”
Ironically, Jeffries had little problem with gentrifier voters when they were delivering him 85-15 margins over Charles Barron in 2012. As we can observe from Census data - Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, the backbone of Jeffries’ long standing political base - shifted from plurality Black to plurality White from 2000 to 2010, as white voters - skeptical of Roger Green’s relationship to the political establishment, were an important part of the Jeffries coalition. What changed? Jeffries? The voting base? Or the results?
Critics have charged that gentrification only became a significant talking point for Jeffries once his candidates started to lose elections, with many on the left tying his tacit support for real estate development (like the Atlantic Yards project) as contributing to some of the demographic shifts he now decries.
The grudge match between Jeffries and DSA would come a year later - as the incumbent City councilmember for the 35th District, Laurie Cumbo, was termed out of office. Jeffries threw his weight behind Crystal Hudson, the former chief of operations to Cumbo, who also counted support from the City’s largest labor unions, Rep. Yvette Clarke, Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, and Brad Lander - while DSA (and their State electeds + Cynthia Nixon) backed tenant organizer Michael Hollingsworth. All told, it was the most interesting Council race of the year - as the City’s broader liberal-left/progressive coalition was divided between Hudson and Hollingsworth - with the former eager to distance herself from her notably not progressive ex-boss, penning an Op-Ed calling the Cumbo-backed Bedford Armory project a “disgrace.” The race was bitter and contentious, but Hudson, armed with more money and endorsements, narrowly prevailed following the Ranked Choice runoff. Jeffries had won the latest battle in his proxy war with DSA.
However, Jeffries animosity towards socialist politicians is not solely confined to DSA, Bernie Sanders, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies. Since ascending to Congress, Jeffries has attempted to weaken his old-foe, Charles Barron - supporting candidates like Nikki Lucas and Chris Banks against Barron, and his wife, Inez. The first crack in East New York’s socialist dynasty came when Lucas and Banks secured a majority of the County Committee seats in the 60th Assembly District, allowing Lucas to assume the Democratic Party ballot line - tantamount to assured victory in a Special Election - for the neighborhood’s State Assembly seat upon Inez Barron’s retirement - later defeating Barron ally, Keron Alleyne, in the June 2022 primary. Lucas, who came within 1,000 votes of upsetting Charles Barron in last year’s council race, is an important figure on Jeffries’ local bench of allies - given the Congressman had previously struggled to gain a down-ballot foothold in East New York.
With respect to his desire to oust the Barrons, Jeffries is aligned with Mayor Eric Adams. On other issues - that is not always the case.
While the two are quick to dismiss any talk of a rivalry, the rumored tension between Adams and Jeffries - once colleagues in Albany - has been reported on for the past decade, as the two were frequently caught on opposite sides of contentious City primaries.
“Politico noted that they backed different candidates for New York City comptroller and public advocate in 2009, when Jeffries bet on eventual winners John Liu and Bill de Blasio, respectively, while Adams endorsed David Yassky for comptroller and Norman Siegel for public advocate. In 2013, Jeffries supported Ken Thompson for Brooklyn district attorney, while Adams stuck with incumbent Charles Hynes, who lost to Thompson. In 2012, when Jeffries ran for Congress against then-City Council Member Charles Barron, Adams stayed neutral.” (City & State)
When Adams hand-picked successor, Jesse Hamilton was elected to the State Senate, defeating Jeffries-backed candidate Rubain Dorancy, the future Mayor boastfully proclaimed, “We didn’t win by one, or two, or three points, we kicked their ass! We showed them who the real kingmaker in Brooklyn is.”
Jeffries shot back:
“In my day job, I’m working hard to defend the president against the GOP march toward impeachment, fighting the tea party Republicans on every front, pushing for a Department of Justice investigation into the Eric Garner case… Does anyone really believe that a race involving Jesse E. Hamilton III was high on the triage list?”
Adams' burning ambition to become Mayor, and Jeffries desire to remain in Washington - ensured that the two would never face-off in the electoral arena. However, their pseudo-rivalry peaked in 2021, when Jeffries bypassed Adams, giving his #1 ranking endorsement to Maya Wiley, the leading progressive candidate. Within Jeffries’ 8th Congressional district, Wiley performed well in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and in the western portion of Bed-Stuy (where the white population is higher). Yet, Wiley struggled mightily in other parts of Jeffries’ CD - particularly in East New York, Canarsie, and the Coney Island peninsula - where Adams (who Jeffries publicly endorsed as his second choice) crushed the competition, consistently netting 60-75% of the vote against Wiley, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang.
Now, with Adams a year into his term as Mayor and Jeffries tapped to be the next Speaker - there may be enough power to go around - as the two appear to have found common ground in the City’s elections: namely, uniting against progressive candidates.
Adams and Jeffries both backed Grace Lee, Erik Dilan, and Kevin Parker in state legislature races this summer - deliberately, all three were pitted against DSA challengers.
“It will be interesting to see whether the virtue signalers can break through in that particular context in a majority-Black district,” Jeffries remarked with respect to Parker’s Flatbush-based district.
Adams was far less gun-shy - endorsing nearly every progressive candidate.
The bifurcated primary delivered two-sets of results - with progressives and insurgents struggling mightily to breakthrough in June’s Assembly and Statewide races, with both Lee and Dilan winning. Jeffries was bullish on the left’s weakness, while Adams tripled down against progressives ahead of August’s State Senate races - backing Elizabeth Crowley in tri-borough Queens-Brooklyn-Manhattan district against Kristen Gonzalez, while supporting Miguelina Camilo’s challenge to progressive Bronx incumbent Gustavo Rivera.
One of New York City’s last true political power brokers, Rep. Adriano Espaillat, was spearheading a challenge to his longtime rival, State Senator Robert Jackson. The Black incumbent appeared vulnerable in the newly redrawn Upper Manhattan-West Bronx seat, especially with full-weight of Espaillat’s political machine - anchored by the neighborhood’s Dominican community - behind challenger Angel Vasquez (the district as a whole was now 70% Latino, with approximately 3/4ths of the Latino population being Dominican). A respected progressive who defeated the IDC-aligned Marisol Alcantara as part of 2018’s progressive wave, Jackson remained an outspoken advocate for education reform, a lead plaintiff in the 1993 Campaign for Fiscal Equity case. Vasquez, the former chief of staff to Alcantara, was heavily buoyed by pro-Charter PACs - in spite of the fact that he was the former political director of the UFT (who endorsed Jackson). Jeffries, likely at the behest of his colleague Espaillat and potentially the charter school industry, decided to back Vasquez.
“Politically, the left did have some success in primarying Democratic incumbents in 2018, and 2020. But a lot of their electoral momentum began to dissipate shortly after Biden was elected. … It’s a question that the Justice Democrats and others have to ask: Why are we losing race after race after race, running against Joe Biden and the Democratic Party? Perhaps the voters are sending us a message,” quipped Jeffries to City & State.
However, the left struck back in the August Primary. Both Rivera and Jackson, two progressive incumbents under siege, survived their races - with Jackson crushing his opponent by over twenty-five points. Kristen Gonzalez was elected to the State Senate in a blowout win over the Adams-backed Crowley. While Jeffries and Adams may relish Kevin Parker’s narrow victory - a closer examination of the race indicates that challenger David Alexis made significant inroads with Caribbean voters - particularly in the 42nd Assembly district, the home of Brooklyn Democratic County Chair, Rodneyse Bichotte.
The voters had sent their message.
Editor’s Note: In a further blow, City Council Member Ari Kagan, whom Jeffries backed in last year’s primary - defected to the Republic Party - a political calculation spurred by the Republican realignment in Southern Brooklyn and an unfavorable redistricting map.
So where does this all leave Jeffries?
Understandably, much of his attention will be diverted towards Washington, but Jeffries remains a Brooklyn politician at heart.
My immediate question is whether sharing a common foil is enough to keep Jeffries and Adams tenuously aligned on local matters. While Adams is close with the scandal-scarred Brooklyn Democratic Party, Jeffries has remained hands-off with respect to the county machine - despite pressure from reform groups. The Adams administration has received its fair share of criticism, and will soon conclude a bumpy first year - marred by staff departures and tension with City agencies. If there are more major shakeups, how will Jeffries react?
Over the next decade, there will be multiple open Congressional seats across New York City, spawning intensive primary contests like what we just witnessed in NY10. To what degree will Jeffries seek to influence, not only those races, but a potential Senate primary whenever the likes of Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand retire?
For such a high-profile figure, Jeffries’ local bench - think younger down-ballot candidates in-or-around his Congressional district who he gave more than a paper endorsement to - is remarkably thin, absent Crystal Hudson and Nikki Lucas. Part of this is simply due to time, Jeffries has served in the House for ten years - some of his colleagues in the City’s delegation have served for three times that - but it is not responsible for the whole equation.
His congressional colleagues like Espaillat (Mark Levine, Carmen De La Rosa, Shaun Abreu, Pierina Sanchez, Oswald Feliz), Nydia Velázquez (Antonio Reynoso, Carlina Rivera, Alexa Avilés, Sandy Nurse, Lincoln Restler, Jennifer Gutiérrez), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Tiffany Cabán, Julia Salazar, Catalina Cruz) have all helped elevate first-time candidate to office - building electoral institutions and movements, which (in some cases) stretch beyond the confines of their districts.
As Jeffries navigates leading the Caucus, he will face pressure to be a unifying voice for Democrats. But, the political rumblings of New York City will not offer a reprieve. Will Jeffries become a more cautious endorser? Or will he look to further assert his stature?
Justice Democrats, skeptical activists, and “Hard-left Democratic Socialists” - or whatever Jeffries calls them - are not going away anytime soon. The rumble has already come to his backyard. Both sides are dug in.
Hakeem Jeffries will battle the left in perpetuity. Only now, the stakes will be raised.
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