The ‘bad, brilliant brother from Brooklyn’ Hakeem Jeffries makes history as first Black leader in congress

Marc Morial2
Marc Morial

 

By MARC H. MORIAL

National Urban League

 

“America needs political leadership that can inspire disparate constituencies and star-crossed communities to coalesce around ideas, issues and goals that transcend party loyalty … Hakeem Jeffries cannot, of course, be expected to embody this leadership on his own. But it is a testament to the national character, and the grace at times embedded within it, that the voice of the first Black leader of the Democratic minority in Congress will be seated at the head of the table as we deliberate on the future of our ongoing democratic experiment.”

– Peniel E. Joseph

Of the 15 ballots it took for Kevin McCarthy finally to be elected Speaker of the House last week, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries won more votes than McCarthy in 11 of them.

But a speaker must be elected with a majority of votes cast, not just a plurality. With every member of the House voting, the threshold for election was 218. By the 14th vote, McCarthy had persuaded 13 holdouts to shift their votes to him, but it was only after six members agreed to vote “present” – thereby lowering the threshold to 216 – that he finally ascended to the speakership.

By contrast, each and every member of the minority party voted for Jeffries on each and every ballot – except for the 12th. On the fourth day of voting, Rep. David Trone of Maryland missed the first ballot of the day because he was undergoing surgery. By early afternoon, he was back on the House floor to cast his vote for Jeffries in the 13th ballot.

When Jeffries was elected minority leader in November, he became the first Black leader of any caucus in Congress, House or Senate. Last week, he became the first Black nominee for Speaker of the House.

His colleagues recognized the significance as they cast their votes.

“And still I rise, and I proudly cast my vote on behalf of the enslaved people who built this Capitol. I cast my vote for the honorable Hakeem Jeffries,” Rep. Al Green of Texas, declared.

With a nod to her predecessor, the late civil rights icon John Lewis, Rep. Nikema Williams cast her vote for Jeffries “in the spirit of good trouble.”

And fellow New Yorker, Rep. Yvette Clark joyfully cast her vote for “the bad, brilliant brother from Brooklyn.”

Jeffries is the highest-raking non-White member of the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in history, the seventh Congress to break the record set by the one before it. At 52, he is the first member of Generation X to lead the House Democratic Caucus.

Jeffries, elected to Congress in 2012, had long been seen as a rising star in his party. He made history as youngest member to serve in leadership when he became chairman of the Democratic caucus in 2019. His national profile rose in 2020 when the House impeached Donald Trump for a second time and he served as an impeachment manager. Signifying the cultural and generational shift he has come to represent, he concluded his impeachment presentation by quoting fellow Brooklynite and Gen-Xer, Biggie Smalls, “And if you don’t know, now you know.”

Throughout his career in public service, Jeffries has been a tireless advocate for communities of color, committed to eliminating the barriers to equity. The National Urban League was proud to work closely with him to develop and enact sweeping prison reform legislation, the First Step Act. In 2014, he pushed for a national ban on chokeholds after the death of Eric Garner. He is a co-sponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

His passion for justice is matched by his eloquence, most recently on display in the instantly viral ABCs of American Values speech he delivered just before he handed McCarthy the speaker’s gavel, symbolizing the peaceful transfer of power.

As the new House majority embarks on a divisive agenda of amplifying conspiracy theories, vilifying honorable public servants, eliminating reproductive rights, Jeffries’ steady, thoughtful leadership will provide a much-needed counterpoint.

 

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through https://nul.org.

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