‘What Obama had, he has that’: Jeffries’ stock rises as Pelosi successor

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Hakeem Jeffries

As caucus chairman, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries has a much larger megaphone to challenge the Trump administration than some of his other colleagues in leadership. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Within minutes of Hakeem Jeffries winning a contentious House leadership battle, his supporters were already crowing that the New York Democrat was one day destined to wield the speaker’s gavel.

“What [Barack] Obama had, he has that. I call it lightning in a bottle,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who stumped for Jeffries ahead of the November party election. “I do think he’s somebody that could, with a few breaks, become our speaker and also our president. He has that talent.”

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More than a few Democrats see Jeffries’ youth and Brooklyn swagger — he’s been known to quote rapper Biggie Smalls on the House floor — as the antidote for a caucus long ruled by a pack of old-school septuagenarians. But the speakership is far from guaranteed.

With Nancy Pelosi’s grip on the gavel likely secure for at least the next two years, Jeffries, 48, would first have to elbow aside others on a leadership team that’s suddenly brimming with young upstarts. He also must navigate some of the same land mines that tripped up his fellow New Yorker, outgoing Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley.

Crowley, too, was often whispered about as the heir apparent to Pelosi’s throne. That is, until he was ousted in a primary upset by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June. And now Ocasio-Cortez reportedly has Jeffries in her cross hairs, as she and some of her liberal allies consider trying to take him out in 2020.

Jeffries dismissed the potential primary challenge — which Ocasio-Cortez denies fueling — telling POLITICO it’s a “free country.” And he’s taking a nonchalant approach to the speaker speculation, insisting in an hourlong interview it’s the furthest thing from his mind.

“I’m not ruling anything in; I’m not ruling anything out,” Jeffries said. “My focus is on the job that I have been elected to do as chair of the House Democratic Caucus entering into the majority.”

Jeffries did acknowledge he feels that scrutiny of him and the other younger members of the team is increasing as they audition to take over the caucus once Pelosi and her deputies finally move on. Incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and incoming Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) have served as Pelosi’s no. 2 and no. 3, respectively, for more than a dozen years.

Still, Jeffries insists the younger members of the leadership team aren’t sparring behind the scenes, even as their overlapping ambitions threaten to cause major rifts down the road.

“There is a group of people who will now have to prove themselves but could emerge as part of what the future of the House Democratic Caucus looks like,” Jeffries said. “I’m confident that there will be no daylight between Ben Ray Luján, Cheri Bustos, David Cicilline, Katherine Clark and myself.”

Luján (D-N.M.) is moving up in leadership after helping House Democrats elect their biggest freshman class since Watergate as chairman of the campaign arm. He’ll be the “assistant speaker” in the new Congress with the No. 4 ranking, just above Jeffries.

Bustos (D-Ill.) is taking over the campaign committee and Clark (D-Mass.) will serve as caucus vice chair. Cicilline (D-R.I.) rounds out the rising stars as chairman of House Democrats’ communications arm.

Jeffries takes the helm of the caucus on the heels of a huge legislative victory, having been a lead author of the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill signed into law last week.

It’s the most expansive overhaul of the prison and sentencing system in recent history, lowering mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders and allowing well-behaved prisoners to enter vocational programs and earn time off their sentences.

And it came about through his work with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and conservative GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. At one point, Jeffries even wrote a scathing rebuttal to Senate Democrats after they turned their fire on his efforts.

“We should fight the administration when we must and work with them when we can,” Jeffries said. “That’s been my philosophy as it relates to how we should approach Donald Trump and Republicans in this era.”

But Jeffries’ bipartisan endeavors have opened him up to criticism on the left. While he’s a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, some liberals have whispered recently that he’s not progressive enough — particularly during his contest against Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) for caucus chair.

Jeffries beat Lee, 72, by 10 votes in the race, even though she had a five-month head start on him, declaring her bid early and asking for votes all summer. Several of Lee’s supporters later blamed her loss on ageism and sexism within the caucus; Jeffries’ fans said he was simply the better candidate.

“In terms of whether or not I am as progressive as Barbara Lee, I plead guilty as charged,” Jeffries said. “Neither are 434 members of the United States House of Representatives.”

Jeffries pointed to his voting record to push back on the notion that he’s a moderate in any sense of the word: “My record, based on what outside groups have determined to be the case, places me squarely within the top 25 most progressive members of the United States Congress. The record speaks for itself.”

Jeffries has supporters at the ready to fight for him. After POLITICO reported that Ocasio-Cortez and leaders of the progressive Justice Democrats were toying with the idea of supporting a primary challenger to Jeffries, multiple lawmakers came to his defense.

“[S]he’s helping stir enthusiasm for the domestic agenda that’s really been blocked for years by Republican leadership, but the reality is these are the same policies that my best friend Congressman Jeffries has been a leader on for years,” Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana said of Ocasio-Cortez. “She has been rightly calling for people to give her a chance, not to prejudge her leadership and potential. I hope that she gives the same courtesy to Congressman Jeffries.”

Added New York Rep. Kathleen Rice: “This whole concept of ‘if you do not subscribe to the 15 principles of the Justice Democrats, you’re not a Democrat,’ it flies in the face of what I think is the best thing about the Democratic Party, which is we are truly a big tent party.”

Jeffries’ allies also argue that just because he’s an effective legislator doesn’t mean he’s not a true-blue progressive. Jeffries has had seven bills passed in a GOP-controlled House, four enacted into law. That record, they say, shows he knows how to get things done.

As caucus chairman, Jeffries has a much larger megaphone to challenge the Trump administration than some of his colleagues in leadership.

But before he ran for the No. 5 leadership post, several lawmakers had encouraged Jeffries to aim higher, nudging him toward challenging Pelosi for the speakership. Jeffries said he never considered the idea — praising Pelosi in an interview — and his allies now say they think he made the right choice.

“You know how I feel about the whole leadership thing,” said Rice, who led a dozen-plus lawmakers in an unsuccessful effort to oust Pelosi and is one of Jeffries’ most vocal advocates. “[But] assessing the situation, I think he made the right choice, I really do.”

For his part, Jeffries says he isn’t focused on the gavel, even though he has the potential to make history as the first African-American speaker.

“The future takes care of itself, but it takes care of itself by doing the job that you currently do well,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries credits House Democrats’ romp to winning 40 new seats on election night to a strategy he, Bustos and Cicilline crafted as co-chairs of House Democrats’ communications arm: ignoring Trump and adopting a tunnel-vision focus on pocketbook issues, including protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions and hammering the GOP’s “tax scam.”

Throughout the campaign cycle, the trio reminded lawmakers on a weekly basis to stay on message, even printing little note cards displaying their talking points to reinforce that strategy.

“Now this so-called tax cut is more unpopular than tax increases that have been enacted by the United States Congress!” Jeffries boasted. “We lost the legislative battle. We won the messaging war.”

But it’s more than just a having a simple message. Jeffries says Democrats have to avoid getting in the mud with Trump when he goads them.

“Trump is Trump, but you have to make a strategic decision. Are you going to take the bait or not?” he said. “Don’t take the bait. Don’t take the bait.”

One person unlikely to stand in Jeffries’ way if he ultimately goes for the speaker’s gavel? Clyburn, currently the highest ranking African-American in Congress and a veteran politician who had previously toyed with the idea of running for speaker himself.

“I think that Hakeem Jeffries has everything it takes to be the speaker of the House,” Clyburn said. “I look forward to being around, if not inside the Congress, hopefully from the clubhouse at the Santee Cooper Golf Course when he takes his next step up.”

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