Updated November 30, 2022 at 12:12 PM ET

The House Democratic Caucus has elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to lead their caucus.

As House minority leader, Jeffries will become the first Black person to lead a major political party in Congress. He is among a new slate of leaders elected Wednesday to lead House Democrats in the next session of Congress, including Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., as Jeffries' No. 2, and Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., as the third-ranking leader.

Jeffries, 52, who ran unopposed, is 30 years younger than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi announced earlier this month she would remain in Congress, but not run for the leadership post she has held atop the Democratic caucus for nearly two decades after Republicans gained a razor-thin majority in the 2022 midterms.

Pelosi praised the leadership team following the caucus election Wednesday, saying the new leaders will "reinvigorate our Caucus with their new energy, ideas and perspective."

At a press conference following the vote, Jeffries noted how his confirmation landed on the birthday of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. As someone who represented some of the same neighborhoods that she did, Jeffries framed the significance of his election by reflecting on her legacy and what his party could learn from it.

"I stand on the shoulders of people like Shirley Chisolm and so many others as we work to advance the ball for everyday Americans," he said. "That's our story, that's our legacy, that's our values, that's our commitment as we move forward: Get stuff done, make life better for everyday Americans."

Clyburn calls the leadership change an 'evolution'

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who is 82 and has served in party leadership, said Tuesday night the shift taking place with the current slate of leaders stepping aside to make way for a new generation has been in the works for several years.

"I think that it was pretty clear to everybody that Pelosi, [Rep. Steny] Hoyer and myself would be making an exit from the leadership very soon, either under our own, or somebody carried us out," Clyburn said.

Clyburn called the low-drama leadership change that House Democrats executed relatively quickly after a team that held power for roughly 15 years an "evolution." Typically, coveted leadership posts rarely open up and contested races can get personal with camps working furiously to secure votes in a race decided via a secret ballot.

"I have studied history long enough to know that evolutions are much better than revolutions," Clyburn said. "And I think that anybody watching their caucus, our caucus over the years, could see the evolving leadership."

Speaking the night before the leadership elections, Jeffries told reporters that after Democrats won back the majority in 2018 he, Clark and Aguilar talked about joining the leadership table then and using the period to demonstrate they were up to the task to eventually move up the leadership ladder.

A new generation vows 'bottom up' leadership style

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., told NPR "one thing I've learned in leadership is that you don't get to choose your moment. The moment presents itself, and it's up to you to decide how and when you're going to lead." Crow said Jeffries has a "bottom up style of leadership," adding, "one of his greatest strengths is recognizing the tremendous talent around him."

Pelosi held a very narrow majority during this session of Congress, and the divisions between progressives and centrists often spilled into the open and stalled action on top priorities. Those on the left often wanted bolder policy proposals and more generous federal spending, while centrists argued for positions they maintained were more in step with voters in purple districts they represented and helped the party regain the majority in 2018.

Jeffries told reporters there's "nothing more unifying then being in the majority" and said he and his colleagues are squarely focused on taking back the gavel in 2024.

He acknowledged the caucus is "a big family, and an enthusiastic family and sometimes a noisy family." In a veiled reference to the House GOP conference and its allegiance to former President Donald Trump, Jeffries added "I'd much rather be a coalition than a cult."

One younger House Democrat, Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., who was elected in 2016, told NPR she was excited about the major shift in who will lead her party in the House. Barragán pointed out that she and Jeffries come from similar backgrounds, with working-class parents.

"He understands what it's like to be a person of color, the discrimination that we face — as he likes to say it's about standing up for the left behind and the folks who aren't really having that say at the table." She said his style is to listen to the various factions inside the caucus and said he's traveled extensively around the country to visit with lawmakers in their districts.

Jeffries served as impeachment manager and legislator

Pelosi tapped Jeffries to serve as an impeachment manager for the Senate trial in January of 2020 — a high profile position for those who would prosecute their case on national television. Crow was on the team and recounted a tense moment during the Senate trial when a protester burst into the chamber during Jeffries' presentation and it was unclear if he had a weapon or would threaten the lawmakers inside. As the Capitol Police worked to remove the person Crow looked up at Jeffries, who "stopped, he collected himself, he quoted a scripture verse about how the Lord will protect his flock and stand by you. And then he picked right up where he left off and finished presenting his case. It just is one illustration of how he handles things and stays calm under pressure."

Jeffries also showcased his Brooklyn roots during the trial when responding to Trump's lawyer who asked the House impeachment managers why they were even there pushing their case. He quoted Biggie Smalls, the rapper from his neighborhood known as "the Notorious B.I.G.," as he finished his closing statement about the president's abuse of power saying, "and if you don't know, now you know."

Crow said that episode shows that Jeffries "knows where he's going, but he also knows where he's from. And I think that's important as a person and as important as a leader to never forget your background, never forget who you are."

In working with House GOP leaders, Jeffries will keep an 'open mind'

Jeffries said he has an "open mind" in terms of his relationship with the top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was nominated to serve as the speaker. McCarthy is still working to secure the votes he needs to be elected by the full House. Jeffries said he has more experience with the incoming majority leader, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and said he would look for areas of common ground. But he stressed that McCarthy has a lot of members Jeffries considers "extreme" and he is prepared to oppose GOP efforts to push far-right policies.

Juma Sei contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries made history today as fellow Democrats elected him to take the top leadership position in the House of Representatives. He'll be the first Black person to lead a political party in Congress. This comes after Democrats lost control of the House in the midterms, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided not to run for a leadership position.

NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh has been reporting on Jeffries and this new era of leadership on Capitol Hill. Hey, Deirdre.


SHAPIRO: So Speaker Pelosi is stepping down, along with her two top deputies. This feels like a new chapter, a real changing of the guard.

WALSH: It really is. You know, Pelosi and her top deputies are all in their 80s. In her speech when she announced she wasn't going to run for a leadership post, Pelosi said she wanted to usher in a new generation of younger leaders. Jeffries, along with his new No. 2, Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark, are both in their 50s. California Democrat Pete Aguilar, who's going to serve as the new caucus chair next year, is 43. Both veteran Hill Democrats and newer members I talked to today were really excited about the generational change. But they also talked about how the new team reflects the diversity of the party.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: I have been preaching the gospel of Hakeem Jeffries for about three years.

WALSH: That's Missouri Democrat Emanuel Cleaver, a former pastor and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

CLEAVER: I'm thrilled. You know, it's one of the last frontiers in politics.

WALSH: Jeffries' political star has been rising for years. He was elected to the House in 2012 and won the post as caucus chair in 2018. He was born in Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. His working-class parents were social workers. And Jeffries was educated in New York City public schools. He sports sneakers with his dress suits and occasionally quotes his favorite rappers. California Democrat Nanette Barragan says she shares a working-class background with Jeffries, and she's quick to note the historic nature of his election.

NANETTE BARRAGAN: He understands what it's like to be a person of color, the discrimination that we face, the marginalized communities. So to have his perspective, his experience, with his background, which to me is very much like the diversity of America, it's a remarkable moment.

WALSH: Jeffries serves on the House Judiciary Committee and teamed up with Republicans on a major criminal justice reform bill in 2018. Here he is on the floor during that debate.


HAKEEM JEFFRIES: These individuals are amongst the least, the lost and the left behind. And we have an opportunity, in a bipartisan way, to make a difference in their lives in so many areas.

WALSH: Pelosi tapped Jeffries, a former corporate litigator, to be part of the team presenting the House's case for President Trump's first impeachment in 2020. Colorado Democrat Jason Crow recounted how Jeffries wasn't distracted when a protester burst into the chamber during his presentation. While others duck for cover in the chaos, Jeffries remained calm.

JASON CROW: He stopped. He collected himself. He quoted a scripture verse about how the Lord will protect his flock and stand by you. And then he picked right up where he left off and finished presenting his case.

WALSH: Later, in his closing argument, Jeffries quoted The Notorious B.I.G., a rapper from Brooklyn, as he responded to Trump's lawyer.


JEFFRIES: That is why we are here, Mr. Sekulow. And if you don't know, now you know.

WALSH: Jeffries turned to his mentor and the current highest-ranking Black leader in Congress, South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn, before announcing his bid for party leader. Clyburn says shifting power to younger leaders is something the House Democratic Caucus has been moving towards for years.

JIM CLYBURN: I've studied history long enough to know that evolutions are much better than revolutions. And I think that anybody watching our caucus over the years could see the evolving leadership.

WALSH: Splits between progressives and centrist Democrats stalled legislation regularly in this Congress. Clyburn admitted bridging the different factions will be a challenge for Jeffries.

CLYBURN: That's always an issue. In the Democratic Caucus, it always will be.

WALSH: Cleaver is confident Jeffries' calm demeanor will serve him well and hopes he can find a partner in the Republican majority.

CLEAVER: My great dream is that Hakeem Jeffries can get with whomever becomes the leader of - the speaker of the House and work to get some legislation done for the nation.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh reporting on a change of leadership on the Democratic side of the House of Representatives. And Deirdre, let's talk about the Republicans for a moment.

WALSH: Right.

SHAPIRO: Do we know who the speaker will be? Does Kevin McCarthy have that locked up?

WALSH: Right now, Kevin McCarthy, who was nominated by House Republicans for the position, doesn't have the votes he needs to be elected by the full House in January. His Republican majority is only expected to have a narrow four-seat margin. And McCarthy already has five public no votes from fellow Republicans. It hasn't happened since 1923, but the vote for speaker could take multiple ballots as Republicans figure out if they are going to be able to rally behind McCarthy. You know, Jeffries, for his part, said he has an open mind when it comes to working McCarthy if he ends up as the House speaker.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, thanks.

WALSH: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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