Hakeem Jeffries’s post-election message

After a bruising election for House Democrats, the powerful caucus chair wants to overcome intraparty conflict and focus on the future

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is ready to move past the bickering after weeks of squabbling by House Democrats over messaging tactics following their poor showing in November. 

At a moment when party leaders, clinging to a slim congressional majority, are hoping for consensus within their ranks, growing discord between moderates and progressives has threatened to overshadow Democrats’ successful effort to put aside their ideological differences, at least temporarily, and rally behind President-elect Joe Biden.

Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Jeffries sought to accentuate the positive, even if he is reported to have privately vented about his dissatisfaction with far-left rhetoric that many credit for pushing voters to check the Republican box in swing districts around the country.

“Donald Trump is on his way out. Joe Biden is on his way in. Our long national nightmare is about to come to a close. And we’re excited about a new chapter opening up in the United States,” Jeffries said matter-of-factly in a phone conversation before heading to the House floor one recent morning. “We are approaching the next Congress with a great deal of enthusiasm, understanding that there are a lot of problems and challenges we need to address. And we’re looking forward to getting to work on behalf of the American people.”

Jeffries, a gifted orator who is known to deliver extemporaneous speeches, seemed cautious in the interview, often sounding as if he were sticking to a script — an indication, perhaps, that he is wary of igniting any new controversies as he looks to foster comity ahead of the next term.

The powerful House Democratic Caucus chair, who worked to craft the messaging that helped his party take back the lower chamber in 2018, put forth a succinct list of straightforward directives when asked how Democrats could work together to support a common vision. 

Emphasizing that the “first order of business” was “crushing the coronavirus,” Jeffries added that the party was focused on “providing direct relief to everyday Americans, strengthening the economy and rebuilding our relationships throughout the world.”

“Then,” he said later, “we have to address many of the social, economic and racial justice issues that have plagued our society for far too long so we can bring to life the principle of liberty and justice for all.”

It remains to be seen if Jeffries — who is viewed as a likely successor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) — will be capable of doing his part to repair the deepening schism between centrist Democrats and progressives that is sure to cause tension in the coming years. 

Jeffries, for his part, made clear in conversation with JI that he was intent on staying the course. “Moving forward, there’ll be a time to work through the upcoming election cycle,” he said. “But now is a moment to focus on getting things done on behalf of everyday Americans.”

Still, the 50-year-old Brooklynite has found himself at odds with the party’s progressive wing in recent years as Justice Democrats-backed candidates have taken on establishment players like Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), who managed to fend off a formidable opponent during a cycle in which Democratic incumbents were felled by insurgents from the left.

Jeffries was unequivocal in expressing his disdain for Beatty’s challenger, Morgan Harper, during the primary, telling JI last March that Beatty was “being targeted by hard left ideologues determined to prove they can defeat a sitting member of the Congressional Black Caucus.” 

His conclusion then, reiterated on social media: “We didn’t start this fight. But we will finish it.”

Closer to home, Jeffries appears to have developed something of an icy relationship with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who in 2018 was rumored to be recruiting possible primary challengers to unseat him — something her office denied at the time. 

Regardless, it is difficult to imagine that Jeffries’s position in the House is in any way at risk. In the recent election, he garnered nearly 85% of the vote in New York’s 8th congressional district, which includes sections of Brooklyn and Queens. 

And since assuming office in 2013, he has established himself as a national player as well as an effective lawmaker among his constituents, who speak admiringly of his in-depth involvement in catering to their needs.

“It’s a high honor and distinct privilege to represent one of the largest Jewish communities in the country and to represent more Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union than any member of Congress in the country,” Jeffries said. “In fact, in my incredibly diverse district, I represent the ninth most African-American district in the country and the 16th most Jewish. I have the best of both worlds.”

Jeffries was rehashing a line he often trots out while discussing his district, but the sentiment is nevertheless heartfelt, according to Julie Fishman Rayman, deputy director of policy and diplomatic affairs at the American Jewish Committee. 

“It’s the kind of quote that’s like, ‘Oh, he says that all the time.’ And, yeah, he says it all the time, but it’s because it’s that important to him,” Rayman said. “That’s what it is. It’s not schtick. It’s actually how he sees his role as the member of Congress from Brooklyn. That’s how he best represents his people.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries speaks at an ADL conference in 2019. (Courtesy)

Jeffries, a member of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, has always felt an affinity for his Jewish constituents. “The relationship between the Black and Jewish community over the decades has been a long and important one,” he said in the interview with JI. “We’ve stood with each other in times of peril, and I look forward to building upon that foundation to strengthen our relationship even more into the future.”

Even before he was elected to Congress, Jeffries went out of his way to forge relationships with Jewish community leaders in New York and endeavored to learn more about Israel first-hand.

As a member of the New York State Assembly, he first visited the Jewish state on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “It was really evident at the time that he stood out as a very cerebral, inquisitive individual with leadership qualities,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the JCRC. 

According to Miller, Jewish community leaders were initially apprehensive about Jeffries because of his uncle Leonard Jeffries’s controversial reputation when he was a professor of Black studies at the City College of New York. The elder Jeffries was accused of espousing antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

But that was only a fleeting concern, Miller told JI.

“Obviously, all that has been disabused over the years,” said Miller, adding: “He has been an outspoken ally in support of Israel on Capitol Hill, highly influential within Black leadership circles as well as feeling very comfortable in front of Jewish audiences with the sponsorship of a variety of Jewish organizations.”

Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015, recalled his initial phone conversation with Jeffries as he was mulling a run for the House. 

“I called him and was immediately impressed with his depth of knowledge on the relationship between the United States and Israel and the future leadership qualities that he demonstrated even before he ran for Congress,” Israel, who represented parts of Long Island from 2001 to 2017, told JI. “Since then, I’ve seen him as a bridge-builder for Israel across the entirety of the caucus. He is listened to because of his credibility and his seriousness. The caucus understands that he represents a district that has a significant population of American Jews and African Americans — and so he’s been able to take that bridge-building capacity from the streets of his district to the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill.”

“For a guy who ascended so quickly to the leadership and became the chairman of the caucus,” Israel added, “it’s clear that his colleagues have tremendous faith and confidence in his leadership abilities.”

Ritchie Torres, the newly elected Bronx congressman, offered an enthusiastic appraisal of the Democratic leader. “I have the deepest respect for Hakeem Jeffries, who manages to be progressive and effective without being divisive,” Torres told JI. “As a bridge between progressives and moderates, he has emerged as a unifying leader in a time of division. I hope to one day call him Speaker Jeffries.”

As an elected official, Jeffries has also forged alliances with powerful Democrats outside the halls of Congress, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who clashed with Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn over coronavirus restrictions during the High Holy Days and has struggled to mend the relationship.

“New York City is a gorgeous mosaic of different communities, people of different races, ethnicities, religions — and within that context, it’s important to make sure that we respect the dignity and humanity of every single person,” Jeffries told JI. “In my view, that is something that Gov. Cuomo has consistently done. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tough moment for all of us, and the best way for us to proceed is to get through it together.”

Though he has occasionally butted heads with progressives, Jeffries has demonstrated a willingness to work with his left-leaning colleagues. 

In a Zoom call hosted by AJC in August, Jeffries took a conciliatory stance regarding congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman, who ousted long-serving Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) in New York’s June primary. Bowman has argued in favor of conditioning aid to Israel, but he has also made clear that he does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — a promising sign, in Jeffries’s view. 

Bowman’s opposition to the movement, Jeffries said during the call, creates a path for “dialogue because he’s clearly open to a perspective of the shared values, the shared strategic importance” of relations with Israel.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (Ken Stein)

Speaking with JI, Jeffries — who called for unconditional U.S. aid to Israel from the main stage of AIPAC’s 2020 conference — maintained that he sees strong support for the Jewish state among his colleagues in Congress in spite of other differences.

“The overwhelming majority of the House Democratic Caucus recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel anchored in our shared values and strategic interests,” Jeffries observed.

“At home in New York City, we tend to view Jerusalem as the sixth borough,” the congressman quipped, adding that he has visited the Jewish state four times during his tenure as an elected official. “That’s because of the fact that there’s been a longstanding and intimate connection between the people of New York City and the people of Israel. And my expectation is that that will continue robustly.”

Jeffries hasn’t always walked in unison with his Jewish constituents. “The only place that we had conflict was when he supported the Iran deal,” said Leon Goldenberg, an Orthodox Jewish real estate executive and radio host in Midwood who is active in Jewish causes and describes Jeffries as a close friend — so close that the congressman invoked Goldenberg’s name in his opening remarks as a House manager in Trump’s impeachment trial. 

“Other than that, he’s been a supporter,” Goldenberg said of Jeffries’s decision to back the nuclear agreement with Iran brokered by former President Barack Obama.

According to a spokesperson, Jeffries “looks forward to working closely with the Biden administration to ensure that Iran never becomes nuclear capable.”

Despite his strong opposition to many of Trump’s policies, Jeffries has at times shown interest in collaborating with Republicans, as when he worked to pass the First Step Act, a sweeping bipartisan criminal justice reform bill the president signed into law two years ago. 

“He acts on his beliefs,” said Rabbi Moshe Wiener, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, describing Jeffries as a “highly accessible” congressman who is always willing to lend an ear, even amid disagreement. 

The rabbi noted a distinction in the Talmud between what he characterized as disputes that are “for the sake of heaven” and those that are not.

“The differentiation between the two is if when people disagree, is the disagreement only about a concept or an issue or is it also personal?” Wiener mused. “Hakeem Jeffries is 100% totally a friend, and even if there are issues that we might not be in agreement on, I’m sure everyone in the leadership of the Jewish community feels total affiliation with him, affection towards him and belief in him because he’s genuine.”

That attitude will no doubt serve Jeffries well in the coming term. While he can rely on strong support from his constituents in the 8th district, which encompasses a diverse cross-section of neighborhoods from Bedford Stuyvesant to Brighton Beach, election results across the city suggest that Democrats have their work cut out for them as they seek to maintain their narrow margin in the House and craft messaging that party members can agree to adopt.

In an outcome that defies easy analysis, Trump is reported to have gained support by 7.6 points among New York City voters between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, while losing support by 5.1 points in the rest of the state.

Asked for his take on the surprising numbers, Jeffries avoided speculating in detail on the dynamics at play. 

For the moment, he appears largely uninterested in engaging in post-mortem pontification, at least publicly, opting instead for an optimistic attitude as Biden’s first term comes into view after a bruising election season.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we no longer have to talk about Donald Trump, and that day is fast arriving,” Jeffries said. “He’s in the past, Joe Biden is the present and the future, and that’s a great thing for our country. It’s very difficult to defeat an incumbent president. Joe Biden did it decisively. And the results at this point speak for themselves.”

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