In the fall of 2019, several months after progressive lawmakers introduced the first ever piece of legislation for the Green New Deal, climate organizers in New York City held a forum on climate change in the congressional district represented by Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.
One hundred people attended, mostly Jeffries’s constituents, said two of the organizers.
“This kind of thing should be a no-brainer for him. But that’s not consistent with how he’s played the politics.”
New York Communities for Change and the Sunrise Movement had put the event together with Jeffries in mind. Since arriving in the House seven years earlier, Jeffries had risen quickly to be the Democratic caucus chair. The organizers hoped he would engage with constituents who supported the Green New Deal.
“He refused to come,” said NYCC policy director Alicé Nascimento. “We ended up having literally an empty chair at the center of the room to signal the fact that he was not there.”
Jeffries sent his district director in his place. “It’s very clearly stiff-arming,” said Pete Sikora, who directs the climate and inequality campaigns at NYCC.
Jeffries has become known in New York and nationally for his hostility to the Democrats’ left flank. While he has supported progressive policies on issues like criminal justice reform, he has vocally opposed progressives in other arenas — most notably backing their opponents in primary elections. “This was an attempt to try to break through that,” Sikora said of the 2019 Green New Deal event. (Jeffries’s spokesperson did not respond to a question about the event.)
Last week, House Democrats elected Jeffries as minority leader for the upcoming session, putting him in line to eventually become speaker of the House should Democrats retake the majority. Jeffries’s ascent to party leader presents a new opportunity to lead on climate issues and invest in fighting climate change, Sikora said, not only helping his district — which received more relief funding after Hurricane Sandy than any other district in the city — but also creating jobs across the country.
“This kind of thing should be a no-brainer for him,” Sikora said. “But that’s not consistent with how he’s played the politics.”
In response to a request for comment, Jeffries’s spokesperson Christie Stephenson said that the representative has consistently invited challenges from the left and that anyone who objected to his record “is welcome to primary him in Brooklyn in June 2024.” She added, “That these invitations have been consistently declined, despite being offered repeatedly by Chairman Jeffries directly, speaks for itself.”
Ahead of his election as caucus leader, Jeffries made efforts to strengthen his relationships with progressive lawmakers and met with members including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and several members of the Squad. But to climate organizers on the left who have lobbied Jeffries on environmental issues in his district for years, his absence from the 2019 forum was indicative of his broader attitude toward the left, not just on policy but on overall political strategy.
Now that he’s in line to become speaker, Jeffries’s approach to politics matters more than ever, Sikora said. “Our hope is that he begins to adjust how he deals with this type of vision and this type of politics, because it’s not just symbolic. It matters a lot in the way that he approaches bills and policies,” he said. “There’s a bunch of real concern here.”
Jeffries is one of only a handful of Democrats in New York’s congressional delegation who has not co-sponsored legislation on the Green New Deal, though he told CNN earlier this month he’s backed other climate change legislation. (Stephenson pointed to his role in passing the July 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which included $368 billion slated for climate and energy spending.) Jeffries has not signed onto the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, which currently has five signatories from New York’s 19-member Democratic congressional delegation.
Jeffries has also been active in state and local primary elections, where climate issues have split progressives and the Democratic machine. “There’s a whole electoral history here of confrontations between the climate left and his candidates,” Sikora said.
State Sen. Jabari Brisport told The Intercept that Jeffries asked a local community organizer to challenge him in this year’s primary, although the campaign never materialized and Jeffries did not publicly campaign against him.
“He’s just not where Democrats are on a lot of progressive issues,” Brisport said.
Even on issues where Jeffries has sided with progressives, like backing Medicare for All, Brisport said serious work had to be put in to get him to co-sponsor the legislation. “It was like pulling teeth getting him to even sign on,” Brisport said, pointing to a pressure campaign by the Democratic Socialists of America. (The organizer declined to comment on the record. “The situation as it relates to DSA primary challenges is what it is,” Stephenson told The Intercept, including the link in her email.)
Former Jeffries spokesperson Michael Hardaway previously disputed claims that NYC-DSA pushed Jeffries to sign onto the legislation and noted that he had previously supported similar legislation from former Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., “long before any so-called lobbying effort by some in gentrifying parts of Brooklyn.”
Stephenson said, “Those individuals on the far left who are having a meltdown about the rise of Hakeem Jeffries not being disrupted from below are intentionally misrepresenting the longtime support that Leader-elect Jeffries has shown for universal health care coverage legislation.”
State Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest said she personally delivered petitions to Jeffries while campaigning for Medicare for All before she was eventually elected to represent his old assembly district in 2020, ousting his protégé, incumbent Walter Mosley. “You have to kind of work hard to get him onto more progressive legislation,” she said. “I’ve delivered petitions to him, and the look that this man had on his face when I handed him a stack of petitions way back when, when I was working on the Medicare for All campaign — yeah, no.”
While Souffrant Forrest beat her primary challenger this year, she said, “Jeffries did not offer me any kind of support.” The Medicare for All campaign is an example of what progressives should be doing on other issues like climate change, Souffrant Forrest said. Jeffries has consistently campaigned against progressives, but “for him to be successful as a Democratic leader, it’s time for him to see that the progressives are there, the left is there, and to meet us. And to listen, both here and in Congress.”
Though Jeffries himself was first elected after ousting an incumbent, he has not smiled on primary challengers from the left against his centrist Democratic colleagues.
After progressive candidate Morgan Harper lost her race against Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, in 2020, Jeffries posted a tweet in which he appeared to blame progressives for starting a “fight” with incumbent Democrats. “Meltdown? Not us,” Jeffries tweeted, seeming to reference a headline from an Intercept story on the primary. “They started this fight. We will finish it.”
Last summer, Jeffries teamed up with conservative Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., to start a political action committee to protect incumbent Democrats facing primary challenges from their left. A new dark-money cutout spent more than half a million dollars backing incumbents in each of the same five races, and each candidate it backed won the primary.
Brisport also pointed to Jeffries’s endorsement earlier this year against an incumbent progressive in the state Senate; Sen. Robert Jackson beat the challenger and kept his seat. Jeffries also made a late endorsement against another candidate backed by the NYC-DSA in a City Council race last year; the DSA candidate lost.
“Sometimes it seems like, do they even really want to win?”
While Jeffries campaigned in support of several embattled congressional Democratic candidates in New York this cycle, the party’s losses across the state are weighing on the minds of progressives as party leadership transitions to a new guard that operates, in some ways, much like the old one. There may be space for Jeffries to work with progressives on policy, but differences in political strategy could pose a more intractable issue.
Jeffries now has an opportunity to forge stronger relationships with the left in New York and around the country, although he’ll have to address those major strategic differences, said Liat Olenick, co-president of Indivisible Nation BK.
“He has done a lot to protect incumbents from progressive challengers in local and federal races and that is a concern for him being in leadership,” Olenick said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to see Jeffries and some of his allies in leadership put more effort into defeating young, energetic, progressive candidates than actually defeating Republicans.”
Particularly after Democratic losses last month in New York, Olenick said, the question remains: “Sometimes it seems like, do they even really want to win?”