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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries elected as leader of the House Democrats

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., ran unopposed for the position of House Democratic leader. He replaces Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who announced she would not run for the top leadership post after Democrats lost control of the House in the midterms.
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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., ran unopposed for the position of House Democratic leader. He replaces Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who announced she would not run for the top leadership post after Democrats lost control of the House in the midterms.

Updated November 30, 2022 at 12:12 PM ET

The House Democratic Caucus has elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to lead their caucus.

As House minority leader, Jeffries will become the first Black person to lead a major political party in Congress. He is among a new slate of leaders elected Wednesday to lead House Democrats in the next session of Congress, including Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., as Jeffries' No. 2, and Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., as the third-ranking leader.

Jeffries, 52, who ran unopposed, is 30 years younger than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi announced earlier this month she would remain in Congress, but not run for the leadership post she has held atop the Democratic caucus for nearly two decades after Republicans gained a razor-thin majority in the 2022 midterms.

Pelosi praised the leadership team following the caucus election Wednesday, saying the new leaders will "reinvigorate our Caucus with their new energy, ideas and perspective."

At a press conference following the vote, Jeffries noted how his confirmation landed on the birthday of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. As someone who represented some of the same neighborhoods that she did, Jeffries framed the significance of his election by reflecting on her legacy and what his party could learn from it.

"I stand on the shoulders of people like Shirley Chisolm and so many others as we work to advance the ball for everyday Americans," he said. "That's our story, that's our legacy, that's our values, that's our commitment as we move forward: Get stuff done, make life better for everyday Americans."

Clyburn calls the leadership change an 'evolution'

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who is 82 and has served in party leadership, said Tuesday night the shift taking place with the current slate of leaders stepping aside to make way for a new generation has been in the works for several years.

"I think that it was pretty clear to everybody that Pelosi, [Rep. Steny] Hoyer and myself would be making an exit from the leadership very soon, either under our own, or somebody carried us out," Clyburn said.

Clyburn called the low-drama leadership change that House Democrats executed relatively quickly after a team that held power for roughly 15 years an "evolution." Typically, coveted leadership posts rarely open up and contested races can get personal with camps working furiously to secure votes in a race decided via a secret ballot.

"I have studied history long enough to know that evolutions are much better than revolutions," Clyburn said. "And I think that anybody watching their caucus, our caucus over the years, could see the evolving leadership."

Speaking the night before the leadership elections, Jeffries told reporters that after Democrats won back the majority in 2018 he, Clark and Aguilar talked about joining the leadership table then and using the period to demonstrate they were up to the task to eventually move up the leadership ladder.

A new generation vows 'bottom up' leadership style

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., told NPR "one thing I've learned in leadership is that you don't get to choose your moment. The moment presents itself, and it's up to you to decide how and when you're going to lead." Crow said Jeffries has a "bottom up style of leadership," adding, "one of his greatest strengths is recognizing the tremendous talent around him."

Pelosi held a very narrow majority during this session of Congress, and the divisions between progressives and centrists often spilled into the open and stalled action on top priorities. Those on the left often wanted bolder policy proposals and more generous federal spending, while centrists argued for positions they maintained were more in step with voters in purple districts they represented and helped the party regain the majority in 2018.

Jeffries told reporters there's "nothing more unifying then being in the majority" and said he and his colleagues are squarely focused on taking back the gavel in 2024.

He acknowledged the caucus is "a big family, and an enthusiastic family and sometimes a noisy family." In a veiled reference to the House GOP conference and its allegiance to former President Donald Trump, Jeffries added "I'd much rather be a coalition than a cult."

One younger House Democrat, Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., who was elected in 2016, told NPR she was excited about the major shift in who will lead her party in the House. Barragán pointed out that she and Jeffries come from similar backgrounds, with working-class parents.

"He understands what it's like to be a person of color, the discrimination that we face — as he likes to say it's about standing up for the left behind and the folks who aren't really having that say at the table." She said his style is to listen to the various factions inside the caucus and said he's traveled extensively around the country to visit with lawmakers in their districts.

Jeffries served as impeachment manager and legislator

Pelosi tapped Jeffries to serve as an impeachment manager for the Senate trial in January of 2020 — a high profile position for those who would prosecute their case on national television. Crow was on the team and recounted a tense moment during the Senate trial when a protester burst into the chamber during Jeffries' presentation and it was unclear if he had a weapon or would threaten the lawmakers inside. As the Capitol Police worked to remove the person Crow looked up at Jeffries, who "stopped, he collected himself, he quoted a scripture verse about how the Lord will protect his flock and stand by you. And then he picked right up where he left off and finished presenting his case. It just is one illustration of how he handles things and stays calm under pressure."

Jeffries also showcased his Brooklyn roots during the trial when responding to Trump's lawyer who asked the House impeachment managers why they were even there pushing their case. He quoted Biggie Smalls, the rapper from his neighborhood known as "the Notorious B.I.G.," as he finished his closing statement about the president's abuse of power saying, "and if you don't know, now you know."

Crow said that episode shows that Jeffries "knows where he's going, but he also knows where he's from. And I think that's important as a person and as important as a leader to never forget your background, never forget who you are."

In working with House GOP leaders, Jeffries will keep an 'open mind'

Jeffries said he has an "open mind" in terms of his relationship with the top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was nominated to serve as the speaker. McCarthy is still working to secure the votes he needs to be elected by the full House. Jeffries said he has more experience with the incoming majority leader, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and said he would look for areas of common ground. But he stressed that McCarthy has a lot of members Jeffries considers "extreme" and he is prepared to oppose GOP efforts to push far-right policies.

Juma Sei contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.