Crain’s: Incumbents should ’embrace’ primary challenges, powerful congressman says

Originally published in Crain’s New York

New York’s top-ranked House member says he’s not afraid of a Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-inspired challenger—and his colleagues shouldn’t be either.

Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the Democratic conference in the House of Representatives, told Crain’s that he has no problem with the raft of progressive insurgents who have declared their intention to take on long-sitting members of Congress in New York and beyond. Politico has reported that Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated Queens Rep. Joseph Crowley last year, has sought to recruit a left-wing challenger to Jeffries, with whom she has clashed.

Speaking to Crain’s at an unrelated event Tuesday, Jeffries characterized a House election as a “two-year employment contract” for which representatives should expect to competitively bid every cycle.

“These seats don’t belong to anyone other than the people,” Jeffries told Crain’s. “At the end of that two years, we have to go back to the people and make our case why that employment contract should be renewed. The fact that there is going to be a very healthy and robust primary season is a good thing for our democracy.”

The Democrat dismissed concerns from some of his colleagues that primaries would divert dollars from general election contests against the Republicans in control of the White House and U.S. Senate.

“We’re going to have to multitask, and we will deal with Mitch McConnell and the Republican House majority and Donald Trump at the appropriate time,” he said. “The House of Representatives in particular is meant to be an institution that renews itself in order to aggressively and authentically represent the passions of the people. In order for that to happen, you’re going to see primary challenges across the country, from the left and from the right, and that is something we should embrace.”

Jeffries himself first ran for elected office against an incumbent fellow Democrat: Assemblyman Roger Greene, who defeated him twice before leaving his seat and paving the way for the insurgent to replace him.  Further, Ocasio-Cortez’s ouster of Crowley—the previous caucus chairman—enabled Jeffries to rise within the House leadership.

Jeffries is hardly the only congressman in the five boroughs facing a potential primary. Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney has three declared Democratic challengers and Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel has two. Manhattan Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke and Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks—all close Jeffries allies—have one each.