Politics

The Biggest Challenge Facing Pelosi’s Successor

Hakeem Jeffries has a reputation for antagonizing progressives. But their caucus is growing.

Nancy Pelosi and Hakeem Jeffries lean close to each other, talking, with American flags behind them.
Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Hakeem Jeffries in March at the House Democrats’ annual retreat in Philadelphia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Technically it will need to be voted on, but Democrats seem to have settled on a new top dog in the House: New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. Come January, he’ll take over for Nancy Pelosi, who has helmed the delegation since 2003. In her remarks announcing her intention to leave her leadership position last week, she did not mention Jeffries by name, but the other members of her octogenarian leadership trifecta, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, both endorsed Jeffries, making his promotion a near certainty.

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What kind of leader will Jeffries be? One thing is sure: If he is going to be successful in the new role, it will require a degree of nice-making with the party’s progressive wing that he has not been known for in the past. Jeffries has been a more zealous antagonist of the party’s left flank than Pelosi, especially in recent years. With the progressive bloc in Congress now larger and more organized than it was at any point during Pelosi’s tenure, Jeffries will need their support far more than she ever did.

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Of course, in the next session, Jeffries will be minority leader: His primary job will be marshaling unified opposition to Republican antics. And he’ll still have Pelosi in his back pocket. (She may be leaving a leadership position but she isn’t eschewing “influence.”) But if Jeffries is to have any hope of moving legislation in the future, he needs to ingratiate himself with the sizable and growing progressive caucus. Otherwise, they might just make his life miserable.

A Defender of Incumbents

In both New York, where he was raised and became a legislator, and at the national level, Jeffries has made a reputation for his willingness to scrap with the activist class of his party. He’s a tireless champion of incumbency, and has worked to repel lefty outsiders from challenging established candidates who are running for reelection.

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Despite this reputation as a Democratic Party stalwart, Jeffries’ devotion to keeping the already-elected in power has sometimes found him on the wrong side of the party’s center. In 2021 he formed a political action committee called Team Blue PAC, meant to protect Democratic incumbents from progressive primary challenges. Especially notable was who Jeffries founded the committee with: Democratic-agenda saboteur and Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Josh Gottheimer. No House Democrat did more to imperil the Build Back Better Act than Gottheimer. Throughout negotiations, he kept pushing to shrink the bill to cut taxes for wealthy homeowners, raising the ire of Democratic leadership.

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Jeffries’ attempts at kingmaker have also been mixed. In 2020, he campaigned against Jamaal Bowman, a Black progressive upstart, on behalf of congressman Eliot Engel, a white moderate who said he “wouldn’t care” about a Bronx anti–police-abuse event if he “didn’t have a primary.” Engel lost the primary. The same year, Jeffries’ preferred candidates in the state assembly and state senate district where he lives, Walter Mosley and Tremaine Wright, both lost to candidates backed by Democratic Socialists of America. As Jeff Coltin noted in City and State, Jeffries was at it again in 2022 in New York, pushing back against left-leaning candidates across New York City. Again, his results were mixed: In arguably the highest profile race he endorsed, the charter school-backed moderate, Angel Vasquez, Jeffries’ pick, lost decisively to progressive state Sen. Robert Jackson. Jeffries’ internecine jockeying, though not unusual, looked worse given the dire performance of New York House Democrats in the midterm elections; they lost four New York seats to Republicans.

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On a national level, New York state was a black eye for Democrats—despite their solid midterm fight overall. The Cuomo machine, which helped Jeffries rise, can be blamed for creating the conditions for this year’s Democratic collapse by letting the statewide party apparatus wither. The Brooklyn Democratic Party, where Jeffries enjoys his own partial fiefdom, is similarly woeful. As the reporter Sam Mellins noted in New York Focus, the Brooklyn Dems were absent from campaign activities until a week before the November election, and Democratic vote share subsequently collapsed in south Brooklyn.

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Maybe none of this will matter for Jeffries. Bowman, for example, has already signaled his support for Jeffries, despites Jeffries’ earlier attempts to tank his election. But Jeffries is riding into a position of power with a weak mandate, under a cloud of progressive suspicion. He will need to figure out how to clear the air.

An Uneasy Role in the Congressional Progressive Caucus

Jeffries comes to power in a very different Democratic Caucus than the one that gave rise to Pelosi almost two decades ago. He will leap from caucus chair, the fifth-ranking spot in party leadership, to its captain, a move that has been telegraphed since he beat out California’s Barbara Lee, then a 10-term incumbent, in a battle for the chair position in 2018. That showdown was arguably the highest-stakes leadership contest in the party in the last 15 years. At the time it showed Jeffries, a far more moderate Dem, beating Lee, a progressive stalwart.

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Now, membership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, home to House progressives, is larger than that of the New Democratic Coalition, the caucus of moderate Democrats. Democrats lost seats and their majority in November’s midterms, but few of those losers were Progressive Caucus members—in fact, the CPC is welcoming newcomers. According to the caucus, it expects to net three more members, pushing its ranks to 103 members; the New Dems are dropping three, going down to 96 members.

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Jeffries is technically a CPC member himself, which won’t hurt when he tries to strike a unifying pose and embody the feeling of comity that party stewards are now preaching. But the tests of Jeffries’ commitment to that détente will come fast and furious. If, for example, he tries to prevent fellow New York progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from expected promotions to important committees, a combative tone will quickly be set. But progressives have also mounted no real opposition to Jeffries’ elevation to become Pelosi’s successor, so it’s very possible that they’ll find common ground.

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Pelosi often sparred with progressives, but she also had a working relationship with them on certain issues. Jeffries may be an enigma—a self-identified progressive who vigorously opposes progressives, he recently said that he was moved to public service by the 1992 LA riots, a calling that resulted in him going to work as a corporate litigator—but he’s also extremely ambitious. He’ll want to get stuff done.

And there are other reasons for progressive optimism. Pelosi’s office set forth some of the biggest obstacles to “Medicare for All” and the expansion of Social Security, both broadly popular ideas within the Democratic caucus. Jeffries opposes the Green New Deal, but he doesn’t share Pelosi’s opinions on those social programs. In 2021, he was a co-sponsor of “Medicare for All.”

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The other critical task that comes with being party figurehead is fundraising, and it will be interesting to see where Jeffries turns for money. While Pelosi, prodigious in that role, leaned heavily on her near-hometown Silicon Valley as an inexhaustible golden goose, Jeffries has in the past turned to Wall Street. He was a top congressional recipient of hedge fund money in 2020 and has a relationship with the financial sector dating back years. (Early on in his congressional career he helped torpedo the “swaps push-out,” a banking regulation in Dodd-Frank that Citigroup fiercely opposed.)

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But as President Joe Biden has focused on economic populism—championing the raising of taxes on corporations—the party may not draw in the same number of Wall Street donors. Jeffries’ other fundraising regular, the charter school lobby, is similarly on the outs in Democratic circles.

It’s not all headwinds: The Jeffries era begins with the aid of GOP dysfunction. House Republicans, with their tiny majority and rancorous membership, look far more disarrayed than Democrats, despite the GOP’s relative continuity of leadership. And Jeffries will have the benefit of Pelosi’s quiet support for as long as she remains in Congress. As he settles into his leadership position, he will recalibrate, hopefully looking to strengthen Democrats’ power in the House. The question is how he brings other members around to do it.

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