The Rise of Hakeem Jeffries Is Being Disrupted From Below

After Rep. Joyce Beatty’s primary in Ohio, Hakeem Jeffries was feeling good. Cori Bush and the New York insurgents snuck up on him.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup on H.R. 7120, the "Justice in Policing Act of 2020," in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The House bill would make it easier to prosecute and sue officers and would ban federal officers from using choke holds, bar racial profiling, end "no-knock" search warrants in drug cases, create a national registry for police violations, and require local police departments that get federal funds to conduct bias training. Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup on H.R. 7120, the “Justice in Policing Act of 2020,” in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 2020. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg/Getty Images

On the morning of April 29, Hakeem Jeffries logged on to celebrate. The congressman from Brooklyn had been locked in a public feud with the progressive insurgency that had, paradoxically, cleared the way for his rise to House Democratic caucus chair by ousting the previous occupant of the position, his friend and mentor Joe Crowley of Queens. 

That same insurgency had come after a new batch of incumbents in the 2020 cycle, and Jeffries was committed to defending his caucus, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus. As Rep. Lacy Clay and other CBC members suggested, racial animus lay behind the primary challenges. 

The most credible threat against a CBC member in the spring came from Morgan Harper, challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty in Columbus, Ohio. Beatty won in a landslide, 68-32, and Jeffries pounced. 

“Meltdown? Not us,” he posted to Twitter. “They started this fight. We will finish it.”

Jeffries’s reference to a “meltdown” appeared to be a misreading of an article in The Intercept published more than nine months earlier, headlined, “How Morgan Harper’s Ohio Primary Challenge Explains the House Democratic Meltdown.” The story reported that a spate of recent public accusations of racism made by CBC members against Justice Democrats were fueled by anger at Harper’s challenge to Beatty — which the progressive political action committee at the time was not actually supporting. The same day many of those charges were published, the official Twitter account of Jeffries launched an attack on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, an assault that was joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which culminated in Chakrabarti’s departure not long after. 

The post-Harper mop-up operation, Jeffries suggested, would move next to his neighboring district in Brooklyn, where Rep. Yvette Clarke faced two progressive challengers, and then to St. Louis, where Cori Bush was taking a second run at Rep. Lacy Clay.

Jeffries’s optimism proved misplaced.  

Beatty’s decisive win was more evidence for CBC members that the insurgency was driven by young, white hipsters and wasn’t resonating with working-class Black voters. That was a story CBC members had told themselves and repeated publicly, and after Beatty’s blowout win, many appeared to believe it was true. 

The primaries in New York, if viewed through a rosy glass, could be seen as more evidence. Clarke won convincingly. Yes, Rep. Eliot Engel fell to Justice Democrat Jamaal Bowman, but New York Democratic insiders dismissed the incumbent as out of touch. “It doesn’t show AOC’s power — it shows that New York voters want demographic changes in the House,” one anonymous Democrat assured the New York Post. “They don’t want old white guys who don’t do anything. Not only old white guys; but old white guys who only work when they’re up for reelection. People are punishing these kinds of lawmakers. If you’re old, white and lazy, you’re going to get kicked out.”

But peeling back a layer suggests that the comforting narrative might not offer so much comfort after all. Yes, Clarke survived, but she did so with her opposition split among three candidates.  

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, it was a bloodbath for Jeffries.  

Jeffries, admired among his colleagues for his communications skills and speechmaking from the House floor, is widely seen as an heir to Nancy Pelosi as party leader. She tapped him to play a leading role in the impeachment debate, and he didn’t disappoint. In presenting his case against Trump, he surprised his counterparts in the upper chamber by quoting rapper Biggie Smalls.

That shoutout might convey that Jeffries has his finger on the pulse of Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill and surrounding neighborhoods, where Biggie grew up and which Jeffries has represented as an elected official since 2006. But the results of two races in June show that many voters in Jeffries’s own backyard hold views significantly to his left, leaving Jeffries vulnerable to a potential challenge in 2022.

In both contests, candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America defeated Jeffries’s picks. (Jeffries had also thrown his support behind 16-term Bronx representative Engel.) The CBC had also comforted itself by observing that Ocasio-Cortez, in 2018, had done better against Crowley in neighborhoods that were gentrifying. In 2020, she did better everywhere.

In the race for New York Assembly District 57 that spans from Clinton Hill through Prospect Heights to Crown Heights, insurgent Phara Souffrant Forrest toppled four-term incumbent Walter Mosley. Although Mosley is Jeffries’s protégé who won the state office upon his mentor’s departure for Congress, Souffrant Forrest prevailed by nearly 3,000 votes.

New York’s State Senate districts consist of multiple Assembly districts. In the 25th Senatorial District, the DSA’s Jabari Brisport carried AD 57 with over 67 percent of the vote, defeating Bedford-Stuyvesant Assembly Member Tremaine Wright, who touted her support from Jeffries. En route to his landslide win, Brisport also bested Wright in her own Bed-Stuy district by over 450 votes. A small portion of Brisport’s district includes Sunset Park, where the DSA’s Marcela Mitaynes toppled 13-term Assembly Member Felix Ortiz, who was the assistant speaker. 

The northern end of Jeffries’s congressional district includes a section of Clinton Hill, where progressive challenger Emily Gallagher racked up a clear majority of votes in her successful effort to unseat 24-term Williamsburg incumbent Assembly Member Joe Lentol. There are also nearby portions along the borders of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, where DSA state Sen. Julia Salazar did well in her initial successful run two years ago and then cleaned up in her reelection this year. 

Buoyed by its recent successes, the NYC-DSA is now seeking to expand its presence. “We’re looking at all districts in all boroughs,” said co-chair Chi Anunwa. “Out-of-touch incumbents should be quaking in their boots.”

Anunwa said it is too early to forecast whether the DSA will mount a challenger against Jeffries. The group is currently focused on next year’s New York City elections.

Redistricting is also an issue that will not be resolved until the fall of 2021 at the earliest. Jeffries’s current district adjoins those of Clarke in Brooklyn and Gregory Meeks in Queens. All three districts must reach 50 percent Black in the 2020 Census in order to remain intact.

The current map of Jeffries’s district includes areas of Brooklyn where the DSA has yet to set up shop, including Canarsie, Mill Basin, and Coney Island. All three are working-class shoreline communities hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, meaning the Green New Deal (which Jeffries has yet to support) likely would appeal to younger residents there. Jeffries’s base is the older Democrats throughout the district. 

As they campaigned in Central Brooklyn during the first half of this year, both Souffrant Forrest and Brisport found that many residents were quite responsive to the DSA’s platform. “Voters want single-payer health care, a Green New Deal, and universal rent control, and they want representatives who will show up and fight for those issues,” said Souffrant Forrest. In Brisport’s view, such “bold, universal programs excite the Democratic base, not means-tested halfway measures.”

As the No. 5 ranking member of the House Democrats, Jeffries is viewed by DSA members and others as an integral member of the Pelosi team that doesn’t support single-payer or the Green New Deal. While Jeffries has expressed his support for Medicare for All, there is no mention of it on his 2020 campaign website.

Unlike Crowley or Engel, Jeffries is not vulnerable to the charge that he’s absent from his home turf. As his senior political adviser Cathy Toren said, “Rep. Jeffries is highly visible in the community and regularly meets with constituents on street corners throughout the district.”

Toren and others in Jeffries’s camp say that people in the district also have responded favorably to the congressman’s work amid the pandemic, during which Jeffries has helped Pelosi push through relief measures including eviction protections. Moreover, Jeffries’s team maintains that his high-profile efforts to unseat Trump have also played well in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

That Jeffries is a strong supporter of Joe Biden is no surprise. In advance of the 2016 Democratic primary, the congressman led the attack by Hillary Clinton’s team against Bernie Sanders, whom Jeffries labeled “a gun-loving socialist with zero foreign-policy experience.” Along with Engel and Iraq War veteran Rep. Max Rose, Jeffries recently voted to approve the Pentagon’s $740 billion budget. The other nine members of New York City’s delegation all voted no.

Fundraising is another issue that certainly places Jeffries at odds with the NYC-DSA, which doesn’t support candidates that take real estate or corporate donations. According to OpenSecrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, Jeffries is the leading congressional recipient of hedge-fund money, collecting nearly $150,000 through July 1. Rose is second, with almost $130,000.

Despite lacking any primary or known general election challenger, Jeffries has raised nearly $4 million in the 2019-2020 cycle. Just over $1.1 million of that has come from a combination of financial sector, real estate interests, and insurance industry largesse. Among his leading contributors are hedge-fund leaders Elliot Management and the Blackstone Group. Both companies have close ties to Trump.

Jeffries, in turn, has steered nearly $700,000 from his campaign coffers to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Such prolific fundraising in no way hurts Jeffries’s current standing in the party, but if he can’t protect his own incumbents, the money is not worth the paper it’s printed on. 

Leading up to the St. Louis primary, Jeffries re-upped his support for Clay. 

The next day, he followed it up with some cryptic chest-thumping. 

On Tuesday night, his spokesperson circulated vote numbers showing Clay up convincingly in the early vote count. 

On Wednesday, Jeffries was silent on the race.

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