The strategy behind Hakeem Jeffries’ yearslong ascent to House Democratic leader, as his top allies see it, focused on making the outcome feel inevitable. And in the end, it did.
The New York Democrat culminated a remarkably frictionless climb of the party ladder on Wednesday, securing every vote and avoiding a single challenger. He became the highest-ranking Black congressional leader in U.S. history just 12 days after formally declaring his run.
“He makes it look easy, what is difficult. That’s another sign of a great leader,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said.
That effortless appearance took work: Behind the scenes, House Democrats’ biggest power transfer in two decades was hardly a shoo-in. Democrats across the caucus said Jeffries — along with his top lieutenants, Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) — succeeded thanks to years of careful maneuvering to consolidate support from every influential bloc in the party.
And the powerful but unassuming trio, which has jokingly referred to itself in private as the “kids table” for the last two years, did it without a formal whip team. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants still in place, Jeffries and his two deputies instead wooed colleagues with a heads-down mentality, raising gobs of money and listening to what fellow Democrats wanted.
Only one Democrat ever seriously considered challenging Jeffries: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who quickly realized it was too late to marshal a base that could counter the New Yorker’s formidable one. The only other two who might have ran, Pelosi’s No. 2 and No. 3, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), also got out of Jeffries’ way.
“The committed individuals to Hakeem Jeffries were so high that those considering challenging — it melted away. It became the obvious choice, and everybody just fell in,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), an early Jeffries supporter who’s long introduced him to others as the “first Black speaker.”
Cleaver said he first committed to Jeffries two and a half years ago, back when a group of about 10 Democrats met regularly with the New Yorker to prepare for his eventual ascent.
As another senior Democrat put it: “The race was over before anyone else knew what was happening.”
Democrats were in high spirits Wednesday as they huddled for a closed-door meeting to elect the new triumvirate, with screams and hugs as senior members touted the importance of a new generation of leaders. Just before the leadership election, longtime supporter Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) had the entire caucus on their feet with a rousing speech in which he vowed Jeffries would be speaker in 2024.
“The most important part of a relay race is how you pass the baton,” Meeks said, according to people in the room.
It’s highly unusual that such a massive leadership shakeup would happen with total unity, particularly within a caucus that spent much of this Congress sparring as Pelosi sought to muscle bills through with a razor-thin majority. And it stands in stark contrast to House Republicans’ open battle over the speakership Kevin McCarthy worked hard to secure.
But instead of a slugfest to replace Pelosi and Hoyer, Jeffries and his team quickly locked down support that ranged from conservative Blue Dogs to the progressive “Squad.”
The slate of new Democratic leaders benefited from their representation of almost every slice of the big-tent party. Some supporters quipped that a focus group couldn’t have devised a better-suited trio for the party: a Black man, a progressive woman and a Latino man, collectively representing both coasts and a mix of progressive and moderate views.
Lawmakers close to the troika insist there was never a single conversation where the three decided to run together, but that the decision evolved out of natural chemistry between Jeffries and Clark. They worked closely together in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, then together led the caucus as chair and vice chair through a tumultuous two years under then-president Donald Trump.
Aguilar lost a vice chair race to Clark after Democrats retook the House but began working more closely with her and Jeffries after he won the position in 2020. Several Democrats said they first noticed the three locking arms around President Joe Biden’s inauguration — the start of what was widely expected to be Pelosi’s final term as leader.
The three have grown closer over the last two years, grabbing dinner together in Washington when possible and recently adding Zoom meetings to coordinate with all three groups of their aides.
Not to mention that they’re known for delivering on the fundraising front, which played an enormous role in Democrats’ closer-than-expected 2022 midterm.
“You would think, after two decades, it would be fighting — who’s going to take this opportunity?” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a senior centrist who recalled that Jeffries “was there for me in the primary” against a progressive challenger and again in November. “The caucus as a whole is almost like, collective: ‘We agree with the top three.’”
In fact, many Democrats insist they’ve been telling Jeffries to run for the top position for years. (Some even encouraged him privately to challenge Pelosi in 2020, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.)
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who came to Congress the same year as Jeffries and later served on his whip team for 2018’s leadership elections, said he urged the New Yorker “a few years ago” to go for the top spot when it became open.
“I knew pretty quickly he had a special set of talents,” Kildee said.
Another longtime ally who’s helped Jeffries solidify support, centrist Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), said he first encouraged the new leader to run for New York City mayor, long before any opening in the party’s upper House ranks.
Perhaps a harder task than winning over moderates, however, was courting progressives in and out of the squad — some of whom view leadership itself, let alone Jeffries’ past as a former corporate lawyer, with a dose of skepticism.
But Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who’d cut against the party’s grain and unseated a longtime incumbent to get to Congress, said Jeffries had mentored him and understood his experiences as a Black man in politics. So when Schiff came to Bowman weeks ago about a potential run for the top slot, Bowman went to Jeffries to reaffirm his support.
“When the Schiff thing was rumored, we did talk, and I may have communicated my support [for Jeffries] before he was even able to ask,” Bowman recalled. “It kind of happened organically.”
The breezy transition at the top of Democrats’ leadership ticket was maintained despite some turbulence down-ballot. After Clyburn decided to seek what’s now the No. 4 position, rather than exiting leadership alongside Pelosi and Hoyer, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) switched gears to seek a newly created perch running caucus messaging — avoiding a matchup against Aguilar.
And Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) made an even sharper move, announcing on Wednesday a longshot challenge to Clyburn for No. 4 leader. Cicilline made a pitch to his colleagues that their leadership needs LGBTQ voices in order to be maximally diverse. That bid, coming the day after the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Clyburn, is already raising eyebrows in the party.
But there could have been even more drama: Democrats say that even if Pelosi had stunned her caucus and decided to run again for minority leader, Jeffries wouldn’t necessarily have waited his turn.
“I’m not so sure that, had she run, that he wouldn’t have challenged her,” Larson said.