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Hakeem Jeffries, Pressing to Lead Democrats, Marks a Generational Shift

Standing on the Senate floor during President Donald J. Trump’s 2020 impeachment trial, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, laid out the case for convicting and removing Mr. Trump, whose lawyer had just asked: “Why are we here?”

“We are here, sir, because President Trump corruptly abused his power and then he tried to cover it up,” Mr. Jeffries said in the staccato cadence of a prosecutor. “And we are here, sir, to follow the facts, follow the law, be guided by the Constitution, and present the truth to the American people.”

Mr. Jeffries, 52, concluded his grave presentation with a lyric by the rapper and fellow Brooklynite Biggie Smalls: “And if you don’t know, now you know.”

Such a reference may have been lost on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, who has ruled the fractious House Democratic Caucus for the past two decades and on Thursday announced her plans to step down from leadership. Two years later, the moment underscores the generational and stylistic change that is now underway in top echelons of the party’s ranks in the House.

“Who else as an impeachment manager could quote Biggie Smalls?” said Representative Ritchie Torres, Democrat of New York.

Mr. Jeffries on Friday formally announced his run for Democratic leader, a bid that, if successful, would make him the first Black man to hold the top party leadership role in either chamber of Congress. For now, he is unopposed for the post, and widely regarded by his colleagues as all but certain to secure it.

In many ways, he and Ms. Pelosi couldn’t be more different.

She is the daughter of a congressman and former mayor, who was born into a Baltimore political dynasty and later became a wealthy San Francisco homemaker, embodying the progressive social politics of her adopted hometown. In Congress, she has been a master legislator who has led with an iron grip on her caucus and helped enact landmark Democratic policy initiatives for two decades — usually while wearing stilettos.

Mr. Jeffries is the son of a middle-class social worker and a substance abuse counselor, who became a high-powered litigator. He still lives in the heart of Black Brooklyn and often pairs his suits with sneakers. Outside of bipartisan federal sentencing reform, his own legislative record is relatively thin, pointing to a sharp learning curve ahead.

What the two lawmakers share is a pragmatic streak, and a keen sense of where political compromise is available.

Mr. Jeffries meeting with other House impeachment managers during the first impeachment trial of former President Donald J. Trump. He previously worked as a litigator.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“He is really deliberative; he’s not the type to quickly react to a question or a concern,” said Representative Grace Meng, a Queens Democrat who has served with Mr. Jeffries in Albany and Washington. “He will listen, absorb it and usually come back with a solution that most people would not have thought of.”

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

Mr. Jeffries is known among his colleagues in Congress as a calm, self-disciplined operator who usually speaks with no notes. He sends cheesecakes from Junior’s, the Brooklyn staple, each holiday season and hosts an annual “Hip-Hop on the Hill” event. A defender of bedrock liberal priorities like abortion rights and Medicare for All, he has also been at the forefront of efforts to fight racial injustice, including through overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system and slowing gentrification.

But he also has an intensely pragmatic streak and is uncomfortable with the party’s activist left wing, whose approach he has argued is unrealistic and self-defeating. Alongside Representative Josh Gottheimer, a moderate Democrat from New Jersey, he started Team Blue, a fund-raising initiative that backs Democrats fielding primary challenges from the left.

Many progressives, in turn, regard him with intense distrust and even hostility, arguing that he is too solicitous of corporate interests and too cautious on addressing climate change. Should he become the leader, their skepticism may be one of Mr. Jeffries’s first and thorniest challenges.

“He needs the left’s support if he’s going to do his job and hold the Democratic caucus together in this really, really narrow split Congress,” said Liat Olenick, an activist who works with Brooklyn’s Indivisible chapter and Climate Families NYC. “And to do that, he needs to stop antagonizing progressive leaders and take a more collaborative approach.”

As Democrats rushed to endorse his candidacy this week even before Mr. Jeffries’s announcement, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a progressive, remained noncommittal, saying she was still “processing” Ms. Pelosi’s decision to step aside and that there was “healing that needs to be done in our caucus.”

If he prevails, Mr. Jeffries would present a far different model of Democratic political power than the nation is used to seeing. Born in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, Mr. Jeffries represents some of the most storied urban Black communities in the country, including some once represented by the trailblazing congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

Mr. Jeffries speaking at a community event at Antioch Baptist Church in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.Credit…Amr Alfiky for The New York Times
Mr. Jeffries talking to constituents during his “Congress on the Corner” event in Brooklyn in 2018. “He can be in the hood in Brooklyn or the Bronx, but he can also be inside the Oval Office and negotiate with POTUS,” a political ally said. Credit…Anthony Geathers for The New York Times

He came to power two decades ago as a political insurgent with a sharp tongue, eschewing the Democratic Party power structure. Other than a brief flirtation with running for mayor, his preference has been to exercise power discreetly.

“He’s what we call a code switcher,” said Ruben Diaz Jr., a Bronx Democrat and one of the congressman’s closest allies. “He can hang out with hip-hop artists, he can be in the hood in Brooklyn or the Bronx, but he can also be inside the Oval Office and negotiate with POTUS.”

Born into a family descended from enslaved people and Cape Verdeans, Mr. Jeffries came of age in the 1980s and 1990s in a central Brooklyn that was a hotbed of Black activism and remarkable cultural output, but also crime and unrest as New York City struggled through the crack cocaine epidemic.

Mr. Jeffries attended New York City public schools and the State University at Binghamton, where he was the president of the historically Black Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He earned a law degree at N.Y.U., and was one of the few young Black lawyers in the litigation departments at the prestigious firm Paul, Weiss and then at CBS. In the latter role, he worked on a suit stemming from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, when Justin Timberlake briefly exposed Janet Jackson’s breast on live television.

Mr. Jeffries during his campaign for assemblyman in 2002.Credit…Angel Franco/The New York Times

Starting in 2000, around age 30, he ran for office three times before he won a seat in the State Assembly. He got to Congress in 2012 by defeating Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and City Council member, in a primary.

“He was definitely of the generation of mostly men who were outsiders of the Democratic Party and worked to kick in the door,” said Lupe Todd-Medina, a longtime political adviser. “Once they got in, that was when you saw the shift of Black political power go from Harlem to Central Brooklyn.”

In office, Mr. Jeffries quickly made criminal justice reform his top legislative priority, and the issue would become a through line in an otherwise modest legislative portfolio.

In Albany, he teamed up with Eric Adams, the future mayor of New York City, to ban the Police Department from maintaining a database of men its officers had stopped and frisked. In Washington, he helped write what became the First Step Act, a bipartisan federal sentencing overhaul signed by Mr. Trump, and wrote a bill passed by the House that would ban the use of chokeholds by police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has known Mr. Jeffries for three decades, recalled working with him in 1999 on the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old immigrant from West Africa who was killed in the Bronx by four police officers who fired 41 shots because they thought he was reaching for a gun.

“When we were fighting police brutality, he would say, ‘I’ll help, but I’m not the guy that will go to jail, I’m the guy who will help get the legislation through.’”

Mr. Sharpton added: “He is an activist in his way. But all activists don’t do the same thing. He is committed to the long-term goal of what we’re trying to do.”

During the Trump administration, he worked closely with Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, to pass the First Step Act, visiting the White House for meetings even while serving as one of the Democrats’ most vocal critics of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Jeffries, left, kneeling with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Mayor Bill DeBlasio to commemorate the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times
Mr. Jeffries in Brooklyn in 2011. He was elected to Congress the following year.Credit…Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times

Mr. Jeffries’s wife, Kennisandra Arciniegas-Jeffries, works for the benefits fund of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, one of the city’s most powerful unions. They have two sons in college and live in Prospect Heights, a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified in recent years, less than a mile away from Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader.

Mr. Jeffries has worked closely with Ms. Pelosi as part of her leadership team and remained deferential to her as she weighed whether to step down from leadership or seek another term leading her caucus. But the two have had a tense relationship at times, with Ms. Pelosi always aware that Mr. Jeffries’s political ambitions would only be realized with the end of her own.

As for how he would fare as the person in charge of keeping the Democratic caucus together, even his closest allies in Congress said it’s too soon to tell.

“It’s very difficult to know that until you go through that,” said Mr. Gottheimer, “until you’re the maestro yourself.”

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