Is Nancy Pelosi At Risk for a Serious Challenge To Be Made Against Her for Speaker? Meet Hakeem Jeffries

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The airways and internet are “abuzz” today with leaks about the House Democrat Conference call yesterday in which blame was placed for the abysmal showing of House Democrats during an election which saw JOE FREAKING BIDEN win over 74 million votes — allegedly — to capture the Presidency.  I don’t have time to do the math right now, but I’m going to guess that the gross number of votes received by House Democrat candidates was a significant amount below 74 million.

The newly ascendant socialist wing of the party, led by firebrands such as AOC and Ilhan Omar do not believe that their socialist rhetoric and policy plans were responsible for the losses in this election cycle.  This is an impatient group, and I think they will not show patience with leadership that might very well place them into minority status in the House in 2022.

The Speaker of the House is selected at the beginning of each session of Congress, which happens the first week of January following an election year.  The Democrat caucus will pick the Speaker because prior to the election for Speaker in the House, the Democrat caucus will vote among themselves for who the candidate to be Speaker shall be.  Members who vote for a “losing” Speaker candidate are all expected to fall in line behind the winner when it comes time for the entire House to vote, at which point the majority size of the Democrat Caucus delivers the gavel to the Democrat caucus nominee.

But the Democrat caucus has long been split on the issue of who should be the Speaker.  There has existed a rivalry for nearly 20 years, dating back to Pelosi leap-frogging her way to take over as House Minority Leader after the 2002 election following the retirement of Dick Gephart.

Gephart never became Speaker of the House after Newt Gingrich and the GOP took over the House majority in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.  Gephart remained as House Minority Leader for 8 years prior to retiring, at which point Pelosi took over — which I will come back to in a moment.  Prior to being Minority Leader, Gephart had been House Majority Leader while Tom Foley was Speaker, and prior to that Gehpart was Chair of the Democrat Caucus in the House.

Prior to Gephart, Tom Foley had been House Majority Leader while Tip O’Neill was Speaker.  Prior to being House Majority Leader, Foley was Chair of the Democrat Caucus in the House.

Prior to becoming House Minority Leader — and thereafter Speaker — Nancy Pelosi had been Chair of the Democrat Caucus in the House.

But the order of Leadership on the House side is 1) Speaker, 2) Party Leader, 3) Party Whip, and 4) Chair of Party Caucus.

When Nancy Pelosi jumped from Caucus Chair to Party Leader in 2002 following Gephart’s retirement, she jumped over Steny Hoyer who was the Party Whip at the time.  Hoyer had been Caucus Chair from 1989 to 1995, then became Party Whip from 1995 to 2002.  He was next in line to be Party Leader — and hopefully Speaker — having first been elected to Congress in 1980 — compared to 1987 for Pelosi.

This was a controversial move at the time because the House had had only 5 Democrat Speakers going back nearly 62 years — Sam Rayburn, John McCormack, Carl Albert, Tip O’Neill, and Tom Foley.  Each had waited their turn to move through leadership to the Speaker’s Chair.

There were 205 Democrats in the 2002 House when the Minority Leader position opened with Gephart’s retirement — it would take 103 votes to claim the spot.

Pelosi used the pure brute force of the size of the California delegation — along with other western states — to go into the contest with more than 60 votes already lined up.  Hoyer, being from Maryland, simply could not compete even with the backing of the East Coast and New England Democrat delegations in his corner.  Pelosi prevailed to become the Minority Leader over Hoyer who had been ahead of her in line.  This was the first time a California House Member became Minority Leader, and she later became Speaker when the Democrats regained the House Majority.  During those years Pelosi was a “fire hose” of campaign funds throughout the Democrat caucus, and no meaningful challenge has ever been raised against her.

But the rise of the next generation of left-wing socialists in the House, led by AOC, has boosted the prospects of a real challenge to Pelosi.

Steny Hoyer is the old guard, and AOC will not use her celebrity to back him. Nor is she likely to back Jim Clyburn from South Carolina.

But, the current Chair of the House Democrat Caucus — remember that position — is Hakeem Jeffries, a fifth term Congressman from …… New York.  He would have a sizeable NY caucus and New England delegation who would likely support him, as well as the young socialists that AOC, Talib, and Omar might bring along.

Jeffries is an NYU Law School grad who practiced law for a big Wall Street firm.  Jeffries was early to endorse Pres. Obama in 2008 when he challenged New Yorker, Hillary Clinton.

Since taking federal office, Jeffries has been called “a rising star”.  He has been appointed to the House Judiciary Committee Task Force on Over Criminalization, as well as appointed the Congressional Black Caucus Whip. 

As the Congressional Black Caucus’ Whip, he has been actively involved in maintaining the CBC historic role as “the conscience of the Congress.” In his CBC role, he has hosted Special Orders on the House floor, including regarding voting rights (after the Supreme Court decision weakening the 1965 Voting Rights Act) and in December 2014, leading CBC members in a “hands up, don’t shoot” protest to protest the killings of African-Americans by police.  After the shootings in Charleston in June 2015 by a white supremacist inspired by the Confederate flag, Jeffries led the effort to have the flag removed for sale or display on National Park Service land, an amendment eventually killed by the Republican House leadership after its initial support and inclusion on voice vote. During dramatic debate on the House floor, Jeffries stood next to the Confederate battle flag, and noted he “got chills” and lamented that the “Ghosts of the Confederacy have invaded the GOP.”

Jeffries supports banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2019, he voted in favor of the Equality Act and urged Congress members to do the same.

To win the position of Chair of the House Democrat Caucus, he took on and defeated notable Pelosi ally Barbara Lee from California.

He would be stepping out of turn to seek the Chairmanship himself, but Nancy Pelosi blazed the path along that trail ahead of him.