Sometime in the not-so-distant future, probably after next year’s midterm elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will announce that she’s stepping down. Her top deputies, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, aspire to her job, but they’re also in their early 80s, and most Democrats in and out of Congress are counting on them to step aside too. Of course, they all have stock responses denying that anyone is ever going anywhere.
But the day is coming. For the first time since Barack Obama was a state senator, House Democrats are on the verge of getting new leaders. And pretty much every Democrat in Congress and beyond is confident that Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York will be the next speaker of the House, if Democrats manage to hold on to their majority next year—or the minority leader if they lose it.
Democratic members of Congress won’t talk about any of this publicly, as if Pelosi might suddenly appear and pull their hearts from their chests. Jeffries, carefully, left it at telling me that growing up in a Black church taught him to respect and value his elders. But none of the two dozen Democratic members of Congress and party insiders I spoke with privately could present a serious alternative to Jeffries. He’d have the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is stacked with influential members. He’s popular with his colleagues, even those who grumble that he was too meek to challenge Pelosi earlier—“Hakeem is really good at taking in both ideas but also criticism, and not being defensive about it,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Jeffries’s close ally in House leadership, who is expected to end up in the No. 2 spot if he’s No. 1. In conversations with colleagues, Clark and Jeffries have said they’re moving forward as a team, determined to avoid the rumbling rivalry Pelosi and Hoyer have had since their days as congressional interns, in 1963.
Jeffries was hesitant to talk with me for a story focused on speculation about his future. When he did, on a Saturday while bouncing around events in his Brooklyn district, and then over two conversations in his office in Washington, D.C., he very deliberately, very graciously talked past every attempt I made to bait him. He wouldn’t say whether he wants to be speaker, whether colleagues who have been in office since he was in high school are up-to-date enough, or whether newer and more aggressive members have what he considers a realistic sense of how to govern.
Jeffries is currently the Democratic caucus chair, which is a fancy title for being a conduit to Pelosi and for holding a weekly press conference to get Democratic talking points out. He thinks Democrats have failed repeatedly over the years, getting caught up in litigating details and nuances, too scared to assert themselves. He wants his party to speak in headlines—to learn from the Republicans, who have managed to win with ideas that consistently poll worse than theirs but are packaged better. So he gives boring answers to reporters asking questions about legislative negotiations, but loves to warn of “radical Republicans,” or tell the story of how he flipped a reporter’s question about critical race theory by asking the reporter to define critical race theory. He calls Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia the “titular head of the Republican conference,” and says that the white-nationalist and insurrection-denying Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona “is a disgrace.” Republicans “are part of a cult where they’re still bending the knee to Donald Trump.” As for the Republican minority leader who’s his competition to be the next speaker, “it’s impossible to take Kevin McCarthy seriously at this point—he has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump and the Trump machine.”
The activists who have asserted themselves as the arbiters of progressivism, including groups like the Justice Democrats, don’t tend to like Jeffries, and he doesn’t like them. The policy differences between them are hard to see. The bad feelings, though, can be traced to 2018, when he beat the left flank’s choice, Representative Barbara Lee of California, for his leadership spot. His victory prompted a retaliatory threat, sourced to people close to fellow New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that he would be a “highest priority” target in a 2020 primary. (No challenge ever materialized; Jeffries demurred when I asked about Ocasio-Cortez, and her spokesperson declined to comment—though only after asking what Jeffries had said about the representative.) The AOC wing’s main complaint with Jeffries is that although he talks often about climate change, he doesn’t endorse the Green New Deal. He doesn’t like feeling bullied into signing on. He believes that activists are too caught up in thinking about changing society around environmental goals, rather than the systemic racism that he wants to focus on.
Every day, Jeffries stockpiles chits and builds relationships that could aid his run for speaker. But his future isn’t just about whether he gets his portrait on a wall in the Capitol. As the country struggles to see whether government can work and democracy can survive, Jeffries is at the nexus of massive generational, racial, and ideological shifts within his party. He has an idea of how Democrats can hold and build their majority in 2022. But he’s worried that internal fights will prevent it from happening.
The first time I met Jeffries, he was an outsider, or as much of one as a candidate working at a fancy New York law firm could be. He’d run for a Brooklyn assembly seat in 2000 against an incumbent named Roger Green, who was such a creature of Albany that after winning, he got the district lines gerrymandered to stop short of including the block Jeffries lived on. (Green topped that with an ultimate Albany move two years later, when he pleaded guilty to petty larceny, was forced to resign his seat, and then won it back in an election that fall.) Jeffries moved back into Green’s district, waited until he gave it up to run for the U.S. House, and won it. In Albany, Jeffries grew in popularity and power. He considered running in the 2013 mayoral race, and probably would have been a front-runner, but instead turned to Washington. Shortly after he launched a 2012 primary campaign against an aging, more moderate Democratic representative named Ed Towns, the longtime incumbent retired rather than face a primary.
Jeffries “wasn’t an insurgent from the left,” New York Communities for Change and the Sunrise Movement’s New York City chapter, two groups that have charged themselves with policing the boundaries of progressivism, insisted this spring in a document I obtained. Slightly rewriting history, the memo explained that “he defeated a dysfunctional and corrupt incumbent. Jeffries is charismatic, whip smart, hard-working, and extremely canny.” But the man who may go on to be the first Black speaker “is part of an establishment that works to marginalize transformational action when it threatens corporate power and a wealthy, virtually all-white elite.”
In several conference calls in the spring, Justice Democrats’ staff joined a collection of congressional aides and other groups like the Working Families Party and the Sunrise Movement to discuss how to extract concessions from Jeffries on his way to becoming speaker. The groups hoped to at least force him into winning on a second ballot and making deals for support along the way. But they couldn’t agree on how to do that, or find any member willing to run against him in a speaker vote. “It didn’t happen, because no one thought it was a good idea,” one of the people on the calls told me, asking for anonymity to discuss the private conversations. The person described the calls as “part of a larger conversation about how progressives could use their leverage with a very narrow majority.” The groups couldn’t get the Congressional Progressive Caucus interested in their ideas, so they gave up. That was the right move, some on the calls thought: Jeffries is for the most part progressive by their standards, and anyway, he seems to have the speaker votes lined up, and doesn’t need more antagonizing. If they took him on, they’d only lose and look weak.
That doesn’t mean those groups suddenly started to like Jeffries. One day in June, I stumbled onto a small political event on the Upper West Side. Speaking to the small crowd was Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who ran a 2014 primary race from the left for governor, a 2016 race for Congress in a swing district, and a 2018 primary for attorney general—and lost all three. When I asked her if Jeffries is a progressive, she frowned. I asked her to elaborate, but she wouldn’t speak on the record. Ask about Jeffries, and those who have declared themselves progressive leaders say he’s not one of them. Ask why he’s not a progressive, and they say they’re not sure, or that he seems to not be on their side. This is only exacerbated by the media coverage portraying Democratic politics as a story of exciting, committed insurgents versus the boring, compromised “establishment.” Jeffries has backed Medicare for All, though what he really supports is a public option for universal access to health care rather than the end of private insurance. He’s a reliable vote for nearly every progressive bill, and is already hoping that once Congress gets through the triage of pandemic recovery, it’ll be able to work on a Second Step Act, to build on the criminal-justice-reform First Step Act, which Trump signed in 2018.
Jeffries wanted me to meet him in Brooklyn, near the coffee shop where we first got together 15 years ago. The neighborhood has changed; gentrification has crept in. A building nearby used to have a cheaper CTown Supermarket at street level, but now it’s a higher priced Food Emporium. He gave me a mini-tour in the car: That’s the building where Lil’ Kim grew up. That’s where his old Brooklyn rival Tish James, now the New York attorney general whose office issued the devastating report on the Andrew Cuomo sexual-harassment allegations, still lives. (Jeffries had given Cuomo the thinnest of lifelines by being the only New York power player who didn’t outright call for the governor’s resignation in the spring, but he issued a statement saying Cuomo had to go shortly after the report was released last week.)
All the changes in Jeffries’s neighborhood and his career haven’t changed him, he insisted. He’s still the guy who brings in a DJ for his signature “Hip Hop on the Hill” event in Washington, who quoted a Biggie lyric as a prosecutor for Trump’s first impeachment, who has IF YOU DON’T KNOW, NOW YOU KNOW embroidered on a throw pillow in his D.C. office.
I told him about Teachout’s frown, and how it seemed to encapsulate the way he’s viewed now—a general sense of distaste from the left that he’s not one of them, though they can’t quite say why. “There’s a difference between progressive Democrats and hard-left democratic socialists,” he told me. “It’s not a distinction that I’m drawing. They draw that distinction. And so clearly, I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now. That’s been my career, that’s been my journey, and it will continue to be as I move forward for however long I have an opportunity to serve. There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.”
Jeffries likes that phrase, bend the knee. He took it from Game of Thrones. “Black progressives do tend to tackle issues first and foremost with an understanding that systemic racism has been in the soil of America for over 400 years,” he said. “Hard-left progressives tend to view the defining problem in America as one that is anchored in class. That is not my experience as a Black man in this country. And perhaps that’s where we have a difference of perspective.” Or perhaps, a number of Jeffries-wary activists told me, politicians on the left think he enjoys picking fights with them. Or perhaps, one Democratic representative who’s not close with Jeffries told me, they’re just expressing the natural suspicion that people who aren’t in leadership have of those who are.
A few days after meeting Jeffries in Brooklyn, I texted Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez and is most identified with primarying longtime Democratic incumbents to jolt the party left. What’s the problem with Jeffries? I asked. Shahid sent a link to Jeffries’s political donations, which lists his top donors’ professions as securities and investment and real estate. I asked Jeffries about that. “It’s time for the virtue signalers to stop shadowboxing on social media,” he told me. “Recruit a candidate, put on the boxing gloves, get in the ring, and we can work this out on the ground in the Eighth Congressional District.”
Justice Democrats hasn’t yet taken up the challenge. Four of the group’s five House-primary victories have been over old and weak incumbents, not up-and-coming members of leadership like Jeffries. (Ocasio-Cortez, who beat a congressman many people once thought of as Pelosi’s natural successor, is the exception.) But the two sides fought a proxy war this spring, in a city-council race that anti-Jeffries political activists claimed would be a referendum on him. The Sunrise–Communities for Change memo asserted that it wasn’t “just another city council race,” noting that they had hoped to make Jeffries feel electorally vulnerable. Jeffries’s candidate, who’s progressive by any standard, won, and will now be the first Black openly gay woman on the New York City council. He says he doesn’t feel vulnerable. When he invited me to Brooklyn to watch him greet voters outside that Food Emporium, pose for pictures at a Juneteenth celebration, and make a cameo with an African dance troupe, he was trying to prove it.
In June, after his candidate won the council race, Jeffries launched a new PAC to protect incumbents from primary challenges—a group that lefty tweeters have dubbed the “Injustice Democrats.” The days when the Working Families Party endorsed Jeffries as a “progressive champion” are long gone: “Start whispering to reporters,” Joe Dinkin, the party’s campaigns director, wrote of Jeffries’s PAC on a WhatsApp chain that was shared with me, “that with a right wing and white nationalist Republican Party in danger of taking back Congress it’s pathetic and moronic that they’d rather shoot fire and spend resources against progressives than against Republicans.”
Outside the House chamber recently, I caught up with Jamaal Bowman, one of the successful Justice Democrats candidates last year. After winning his primary, he talked about how eager he was to align with the “Squad.” Now he’s become a frequent texting buddy with Jeffries. Some people say Jeffries isn’t a progressive, I said to Bowman. Are they right?
“Someone can be an excellent leader and not share my political ideology and not agree with everything 100 percent of the time,” Bowman told me. “When you talk about someone who’s organized, who’s steady, who’s articulate, and who I think shares my values in terms of trying to meet the needs of the most marginalized people, I think Chairman Jeffries shares that with me. In terms of how we go about getting to those places, I think there are some differences there.”
But is he a progressive?
“I don’t know, man,” he said.
Jeffries heard the rioters coming down the hall. Family members, friends, and aides were frantically calling and texting, trying to warn the select group of representatives whose leadership roles earned them socially distanced spots on the floor of the House. Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn had already been evacuated. He fumbled to get the bag open on the gas mask under his seat. Nearby, Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a former Marine, was grabbing pens and handing them to colleagues, telling them to get ready to use them as weapons.
Jeffries looked over at Colin Allred, the former NFL linebacker who’d flipped a Texas seat in 2018. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going down without a fight,” Allred said. He whipped off his jacket. Jeffries whipped off his. Jeffries speaks so carefully on the record that it can sometimes seem like he’s memorized a script. He’s so measured in his appearance that he showed up to the Hill the other day wearing a seersucker suit with soft-pink socks to match his soft-pink tie. That afternoon? “You could see the Brooklyn coming out of him,” Allred remembered, imagining that his colleague was thinking, “All right, this is what’s going to happen.”
The police held the doors, and Allred stayed close as they were evacuated to a secure room across the street. Liz Cheney rushed over. The representative from Wyoming was then Jeffries’s counterpart as the Republican conference chair, and she wanted to work together: Trump wasn’t doing anything to stop the violence he’d started, Cheney said, and they needed to impeach and remove him immediately. Jeffries was the first person she said that to. “Hakeem and I don’t agree on substance on very much, but I have a lot of respect for him as somebody who takes his responsibilities very seriously, somebody who is a straight shooter, who tells it like it is, who’s committed to the institution and committed to the Constitution,” she told me. They spent that afternoon and evening at the front of the room, making every announcement and update together. Several of Jeffries’s colleagues mentioned to me what he meant to them amid that panic. They had liked him already. But the insurrection made it a different type of connection, a different type of confidence.
Nearly six months after the riot, Jeffries headed back to the floor, this time to give a speech about creating the select committee to investigate the riot. He spoke for only a minute. “The radical right consistently claims to be the party of law and order,” he said. “They have chosen autocracy over democracy. They have chosen the Big Lie over the rule of law. They have chosen conspiracy theories over the Constitution. And, yes, they have chosen the most corrupt president in American history over the peaceful transfer of power. But truth crushed to the ground will rise again.” Pelosi, watching from a seat on the floor, smiled and gave a short clap, a teacher proud of her student.
Democrats have a tiny margin in the House, and their candidate recruitment isn’t going great. Gerrymandering and the historical trend of midterms going against the party in the White House have many Democrats already resigned to losing the House in next year’s elections.
Jeffries offered me an alternative trend: The three times the incumbent party has picked up seats in a president’s first-term midterms in the past 100 years were 1934, 1962, and 2002—in the middle of the Great Depression, after the Cuban missile crisis, and after 9/11. “All three of those instances have one thing in common, and that is the American people were confronting an existential threat to their way of life that required enormous presidential leadership,” he told me. Drawing attention to the great threats to American democracy can help Democrats hold the majority, Jeffries said. They need to deliver results, of course. But how they tell the public about those results will affect the outcome. And their choice of messengers will matter too.