The election of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as House Democratic Caucus chair on Wednesday represented a symbolic and substantive comeback for the wing of the party that had suffered a stunning defeat last June, when Rep. Joe Crowley was beaten by primary challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Jeffries, who represents a Brooklyn district next door to Crowley’s, bested Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who had the support of the insurgent movement that had ousted Crowley.
A protege of Crowley’s, Jeffries is heavily backed by big money and corporate PACs. Less than 2 percent of his fundraising comes from small donors, who contribute less than $200, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The outgoing caucus chair, Crowley played an integral role in Jeffries’s election. It’s extremely unusual for the caucus chair to leave his position having lost in a primary (and it has always been a man). But as is tradition, Crowley chaired Wednesday’s election proceedings, as he remains a member of Congress through the lame duck session. On the night of his primary loss, Crowley played a song at his watch party — “Born to Run” — and dedicated it to the insurgent who’d beaten him, Ocasio-Cortez. On Wednesday, with Ocasio-Cortez in the room, he sang the caucus a number, but this time it was what multiple members said sounded like an Irish funeral song. The mood was somber, as the caucus mourned the departure of a man New York Rep. Brian Higgins later called “the most popular guy on campus.”
Crowley, though, wasn’t going gently into the night. In the run-up to the vote, he told a 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, according to Democrats who learned of the message Crowley was sharing.
There was a kernel of truth in the charge. Lee’s campaign did indeed cut a $1,000 check to the campaign of Ocasio-Cortez, but did so on July 10, two weeks after she beat Crowley. Since then, Reps. Steny Hoyer, Raúl Grijalva, and Maxine Waters, as well as the PAC for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have all given money to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign committee. It’s not an unusual phenomenon — a way to welcome an incoming colleague — but Crowley’s framing of it linked Lee to the growing insurgent movement, despite her decades of experience in Congress. Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Crowley did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about his involvement in the leadership race.
After Wednesday’s election, in which Jeffries prevailed 123-113, The Intercept asked Lee if she had heard what Crowley had told other Democrats. “Those rumors took place and that was very unfair,” Lee said. “We’re moving forward now.”
She added, however, that the insinuation that she had supported Ocasio-Cortez during her primary against Crowley was patently false, because Lee wasn’t even aware of Ocasio-Cortez’s challenge. “I didn’t even know he had a primary,” Lee said of the under-the-radar contest that resulted in Crowley’s startling loss.
While Lee has not encouraged primaries against her colleagues and has worked closely with party leadership in her time in the House, her iconoclastic image, rooted in her lone vote against authorizing the use of military force in the days after 9/11, meant that the caricature resonated, as Crowley no doubt knew it would. Indeed, it’s a charge some Democrats in Congress are ready to believe — and some outside supporters of Lee were hoping was true — as Lee is something of a hero among the incoming class of insurgents, and Ocasio-Cortez floated Lee’s name for speaker in June and later endorsed her bid for caucus chair. Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who is also closely associated with the insurgent wing of the party, was an early and vocal supporter of Lee. “She’s the single profile of courage in the House,” Khanna said Wednesday. “John Lewis is a profile in courage for his life. Barbara Lee is for her vote.”
Higgins, the New York representative who backed Jeffries, suggested that Crowley had a hand in nudging Jeffries into the race against Lee. “Hakeem is going to be around for a long time. Our good friend Joe Crowley was defeated. I think Joe probably mentored him a little bit toward this,” said Higgins.
Asked if that meant Crowley, who is closing out his 10th term in Congress, encouraged Jeffries to run against Lee, Higgins responded in general terms. “To what extent, I don’t know, but I do know that he’s a mentor and I think he helped him develop a strategy to succeed,” said Higgins. “Here’s what I know. Joe Crowley is the most popular guy on campus, with Democrats and Republicans. Joe has had a close relationship with Hakeem.”
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, which backed Ocasio-Cortez, said Crowley’s move was “absolutely despicable” and all the more reason to continue targeting Democrats who undermine a progressive agenda. “This is exactly why we need more primaries — to have a Democratic Party that fights for its voters, not corporate donors,” he said.
There was speculation among members of Congress that party leaders had encouraged Jeffries to run so that some of the demand for younger leadership could be met without any of the top three bosses stepping down. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is an adept vote counter and Democrats argued privately that if she wanted Lee to win, she could have made it happen. But Jeffries told The Intercept that there was no interference in the race by party leaders. “None at all. They stayed right down the middle, above the fray, as we would have expected they would,” he said. Asked if he talked to Crowley at all during the race or if Crowley worked votes for him, he denied it. “No, I mean, he wasn’t a voter in this particular context,” he said. “I think I had the support of the overwhelming members of the New York delegation, but certainly we built a broad-based coalition.”
Rep. Jackie Speier of California told reporters that some members were telling both Lee and Jeffries that they had their support. Lee confirmed Speier’s claim, telling me that before the election, in which the ballots were cast in secret, a majority of the caucus had committed to supporting her, but she couldn’t be sure why they flipped. If six Democrats had voted differently, Lee would have prevailed.
At caucus elections, which are held behind closed doors, nominations for a position are “seconded” by a number of different supporters. Rep. Juan Vargas, from Lee’s California delegation, seconded Jeffries and introduced him to the caucus as “the next Obama.”
Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida also seconded Jeffries’s nomination.
Lee, meanwhile, came up on stage backed by more than 30 members. Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Lois Frankel, Don Beyer, and Joaquin Castro spoke on her behalf. Incoming freshmen Katie Hill and Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, also spoke, according to members in the room.
After the election, Kildee said in an interview that he had not heard that Lee had given money to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, but said that it would indeed have been a problem for Lee if that message had gotten around widely.
I noted to Kildee that Lee had made the contribution after the primary was over and asked if that changed his calculation. “It would be far less a problem,” he said.
In other words, even a contribution to Ocasio-Cortez after Crowley had already conceded would still be somewhat of a problem in the minds of some House Democrats. “I know she did give her money and that it didn’t sit well with a number of members. I doubt that’s the reason she lost, though,” said one Democratic operative who is close with Jeffries and supported his bid. Many of the sources for this story asked for anonymity to avoid blowback from the caucus.
Crowley, following Jeffries’s victory, congratulated him. “I’ve been honored to work alongside Hakeem as we both fought for the working and middle-class families of New York,” he said in a statement. “As chair, I know he’ll continue that fight and serve as a champion for all Americans by protecting their health care, their voting rights, and their livelihoods. I am incredibly proud that a fellow New Yorker and my friend will help lead the Democratic Caucus. New York, and the country, are in good hands with Hakeem.”
Roughly half of Jeffries’s campaign money comes from political action committees. A significant amount flows from unions, which remain powerful in New York, but he also relies heavily on corporate PAC money, including from real estate, finance, law firms, entertainment, and the pharmaceutical industry.
Jeffries has broken with Democrats to back Wall Street on key votes, including one high-profile measure written by Citigroup lobbyists in 2013. He is also one of the most vocal supporters of charter schools in Congress and a close ally of not just Crowley, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, he savaged her rival Bernie Sanders in particularly aggressive terms, dubbing him a “gun-loving socialist” who provided “aid and comfort” to Donald Trump.
After the election, Jeffries framed the election as a “contest of ideas.” I asked what ideas he and Lee disagreed on during the campaign. “Well, the question for many was how do we get the right mix of experience and generational change. And I focused a lot on the work that I’ve done in the past with Blue Dogs, New Dems, and progressives, and with Republicans, at least as it relates to the criminal justice bill, and in a divided government context, made the case that I was reasonably well-positioned to get things done, working with Republicans in the House and in the Senate and with a Republican administration in the White House.”
Jeffries was also asked by a reporter if his express reference to “generational change” wasn’t tantamount to ageism, as Lee argued. “I think everyone is going to have to make an assessment as to why they voted the way they voted,” he said.
Jeffries is highly regarded among his colleagues for his ability to effectively communicate the Democratic message on stage and television, and he was a regular TV presence during the midterm contests. Democrats tend to lack effective communicators, so the skill is prized within the caucus.
Crowley, up until his primary loss, was widely regarded as the most likely candidate to be speaker of the House once Pelosi lost or stepped aside. Now, said supporters of both Lee and Jeffries, Jeffries was in the pole position.
“I think a lot of people are very high on Hakeem and his leadership potential, and this is what he chose to go for,” said Higgins.
Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who backed Lee and thought she had the votes, said Jeffries is now well-positioned to advance to the speakership in a coming Congress. “I think it puts him in a good position,” Castro said. “Certainly it gives him a good perch and folks like him. He’s sharp, he’s very committed, and I think he’s got a very bright future.”
Grijalva, an Arizona representative who supported Lee (and gave Ocasio-Cortez money after her primary win), said that it was more appropriate to think of generational change as a mindset rather than a number. The party’s goal, he said, should be to embrace ideas that the younger generation supports, not merely look for younger people to push forward the same old ideas.
He paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy to make his point. “Age is not a question of time, it’s one of mindset,” Grijalva said.
Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book, “We’ve Got People: The Rise of a New Force in American Politics.” Sign up here to get an email when it is published.
Update: November 29, 2018
This story was updated to include comment from Justice Democrats.
Correction, November 30, 2018
An earlier version of this article stated that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries gets a concentration of corporate PAC donations from the pharmaceutical industry. While he has received contributions from that industry, they do not make up the bulk of his corporate PAC donations.