August 20, 2019

Hakeem Jeffries is safe as can be

He’s the slow-walking, slow-talking establishment. And he’s not worried at all. By Jeff Coltin.

On a blisteringly hot, arm-hairs-catch-fire sort of day in Starrett City, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is hosting his latest “Congress on Your Corner” roving office hours outside a post office – a format he’s used since his days as an assemblyman. Evetter Pilgrim, a senior citizen from the neighborhood, is ninth in line to talk to the congressman. When her moment with Jeffries comes, she raises a complaint: “the person that’s in the White House.”

“It’s out of control, isn’t it?” Jeffries says.

Another woman waited in line to launch into an excited rant on federal corruption and presidential impeachment.

Jeffries’ take? “The whole thing is overwhelming and out of control.”

An hour later, at an air-conditioned New York City Housing Authority senior center in East New York, Jeffries addressed a crowd of dozens. Most sat at rapt attention. A couple continued to knit.

“We know these are challenging times in America with the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” Jeffries said. “He’s out of control all day, every day. All day, every day, out of control.”

“Out of control!” a senior shouted in response.

Later that day, Jeffries explained to City & State why he describes President Donald Trump that way: “Most reasonable people can agree that, most of the time, he is totally out of control.” Jeffries insisted the insult was an example of his own self-control. “I’ve also refrained from consistently characterizing him as a racist. Because at the end of the day, I don’t know what’s in his head, and I don’t know what’s in his heart,” he said.

This may be literally true – that he doesn’t often call Trump racist – but it ignores Jeffries’ habit of calling the president “the grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.” That’s a reference to the Ku Klux Klan, not J.R.R. Tolkien.

Cornered, Jeffries breaks into a smile.

“It’s a colorful phrase,” he said. “But in my view, it’s kind of a kinder, gentler phrase when it comes to some of the other things that could be said about him.”

The exchange is vintage Jeffries. He’s a man defined by his discipline and restraint. He’s always on message, and trusts the political process. He’s all steak, no sizzle, and – given his insult of choice – there’s nothing more offensive to him than being out of control.

Those traits have allowed him to climb the political ladder from promising candidate to respected assemblyman to rising star congressman to possible heir to the speaker’s gavel. Jeffries has done so without any major missteps – and barely any minor missteps. That discipline has allowed him to be fully present in two places at once, ensuring he’s a power player in both Washington and Brooklyn. And even if his boring, predictable ways infuriate anti-establishment progressives, he’s made sure that a successful primary challenge would be all but impossible.

Democrats felt rudderless after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, so who better to take control of the party’s messaging than the calm, cool and collected Jeffries? Weeks after Trump’s win, his House colleagues elected him co-chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, making him responsible for putting out and sticking to the party’s economic agenda of a higher minimum wage and lower drug costs. Jeffries beat the “Better Deal” drum for two years, and House Democrats rode a “blue wave” in 2018 to the majority. So his colleagues trusted him with more control, electing him as House Democratic Caucus chairman, the fifth-highest-ranking post among 235 Democrats.

To say that the sky’s the limit for Jeffries’ political career is a well-worn cliche, dating back to even before 2011, when The Observer dubbed the assemblyman “The Barack of Brooklyn.” And before 2012, when The Washington Post asked its national audience if the congressional candidate was “Brooklyn’s Barack Obama.” (If you don’t know that Jeffries and Obama were both born on Aug. 4, then you haven’t been reading enough political profiles.) But in January, The New York Times declared in a headline that “Hakeem Jeffries Doesn’t Want to be Called the Next Obama” – maybe because he had a different office within his sights: speaker of the House. In the master plan, there’s even a date set to take over – January 2023, when now-79-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reaches her informal term limit.

Sources say that the speakership is a real possibility, and that Jeffries has earned Pelosi’s trust. Jeffries could be the right transitional figure to ease the party’s generational tensions, moving the Democrats into a new era of Gen Z leadership before the party’s inevitable millennial takeover. After all, Jeffries is 49, nearly a decade younger than the 58-year-old average age of House members. He’s black, in a Congress that is becoming increasingly racially diverse. His long record of working with Republicans could cut both ways, but Jeffries’ self-described “pragmatic progressive” politics could also strike a balance between the moderates and hard left of the Democratic Party without riling up either side too much.

Jeffries is too disciplined to talk openly about his ambition, instead focusing on how Democrats must be sure to keep their House majority and win back the White House in 2020. But those close to him agree he’s a long-term planner who had his eye on Congress before he was elected to the Assembly, and his eye on the U.S. Senate before he entered Congress, which means that Jeffries’ plans are likely dependent on the state’s current senior senator, Charles Schumer. Democrats are unlikely to want both their Senate and House conferences to be led by two men who live less than a mile away from each other in Brooklyn. But Schumer is 19 years older than Jeffries, and won’t be around forever. Both Schumer’s and Jeffries’ camps play up their friendship and mutual respect, so the possibility of a contested 2022 primary exists only in tabloid editors’ dreams. But were Schumer to leave office, there’s no doubt Jeffries would be a top-tier candidate to be New York’s next senator. As always, Jeffries has a plan.


City & State New York