Who is Hakeem Jeffries? Democrats united behind new leader while GOP’s McCarthy chaos continues

While the Republican battle continues over Kevin McCarthy’s repeated attempts to claim the House speaker’s gavel, Democrats have remained united behind their new leader, New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries.

Mr Jeffries is the first Black American to lead a major political party in Congress after former Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped down from the Democratic leadership.

House Democrats are now led by a new trio – the 52-year-old Mr Jeffries as the minority leader, Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts as the Democratic whip, and Pete Aguilar, 43, of California as the chairman of the caucus.

Mr Jeffries, Ms Clark, and Mr Aguilar have been waiting in the wings for years in lower levels of Democratic leadership and were able to take the helm without challenges.

The House’s two new potential leaders, Mr Jeffries and Mr McCarthy, are of the same generation but have almost no real relationship to speak of — in fact the Democrat is known for levelling political barbs at the Republican from afar, particularly over the GOP’s embrace of former President Donald Trump. Mr Jeffries served as a House manager during Mr Trump’s first impeachment.

Mr Jeffries said he hopes to find “common ground when possible” with Republicans but will “oppose their extremism when we must”.

“There are going to be a group, in my judgment, of mainstream Republicans who are not going to want to go in the MAGA direction, and Hakeem’s the ideal type guy to work with them,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the AP.

While some progressives have viewed Mr Jeffries as too centrist for their liking, progressive Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib told the news agency she was encouraged by the way the new leader has been engaging members despite facing no challengers to his post.

“There’s a genuine sense that he wants to develop relationships and working partnerships with many of us,” she said.

Mr Jeffries’ ascent comes as a milestone for Black Americans, the Capitol built with the labour of enslaved people and its dome later expanded during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency as a symbol the nation would stand during the Civil War.

“The thing about Pete, Katherine and myself, is that we embrace what the House represents,” Mr Jeffries said, calling it “the institution closest to the people”.

While the House Democrats are often a big, diverse, “noisy family,” he said, “it’s a good thing. At the end of the day, we’re always committed to finding the highest common denominator in order to get big things done for everyday Americans”.

Mr Jeffries has been in the House since 2013 after spending almost six years in the New York State Assembly. Before getting the top job among the House Democrats, he served as the chair of the caucus from 2019.

Often mixing sneakers with his suit, he has quoted the Notorious BIG on the House floor and he has often clashed with progressives, such as in 2016 when he vocally criticised Senator Bernie Sanders’s run for president for his record on gun violence. Another such instance was when he supported Democratic incumbent Representative William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st district primary before Cori Bush beat him. Some have also shared their concerns about his ties to the financial industry.

But Mr Jeffries is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus along with the Congressional Black Caucus. His assumption of the minority leader role comes after Democrats lost their House majority in the November midterms, albeit only by a slim margin.

The thin Republican majority means that they will likely have to consult Democrats to usher through must-pass legislation such as raising the debt limit and keeping the government open if rightwing members defect.

The Associated Press contributed to this report