U.S. House Democrats make history electing first Black party leader in Congress

US Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the new House Democratic leader, flanked by Rep. Katherine Clark, the new minority whip, and Rep. Pete Aguilar, the new Democratic Caucus chairman, on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom.

The three US House Democrats who have led their party through four presidencies and thousands of floor votes formally passed the torch to the next generation on Wednesday, as the party gathered behind closed doors to elect its top leaders for the 118th Congress.

House Democrats have Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, from New York, named their leader. Jeffries, 52, will make history as the first Black lawmaker to lead either party in Congress.

Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts, was elected whip, and Rep. Pete Aguilar, 43, of California, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as caucus chairman. The trio will take over in January when Congress meets for the next session and Democrats move into the minority.

All three leaders-elect ran unopposed, cementing a smooth transition that has been on the horizon for years but did not move forward until Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced she was stepping down from the leadership earlier this month. Pelosi (82) will remain in Congress under the honorary title “Speaker Emerita”.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, congratulated Jeffries, his fellow New Yorker.

“Hakeem Jeffries’ elevation as Democratic leader of the House is a turning point in the history of the United States Congress,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. “Never before has an African-American leader, or any leader of color, held a top position for either party in either chamber.”

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Schumer, who lives in Brooklyn, said he is excited to work with Jeffries, who represents part of Brooklyn in the House, on Democratic priorities during the next Congress.

“He’s someone who I know will both hold the line with our democratic values ​​while being ready to listen and keeping an open mind,” Schumer said. “I know he can work with the other side whenever necessary.”

Schumer said he looks forward to talking to “my neighbor from Brooklyn four or six times a day, like I did with Speaker Pelosi.”

Hoyer congratulates Jeffries

House Democrats’ no. 2, Maryland’s Rep. Steny Hoyer, also decided to step down from leadership, clearing the way for Clark to move up from the assistant speaker role, which is currently the no. 4 leadership slot is.

Hoyer, 83, will remain in Congress next session and return to the Appropriations Committee, which determines more than $1.5 trillion in government spending annually.

Hoyer also congratulated Jeffries, calling the new Democratic leader a “skilled consensus builder, effective legislator and experienced leader.”

Hoyer said Jeffries is “well-equipped to help House Democrats deliver further results for the people in the 118th Congress and take back the majority in 2024.”

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South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, 82, currently Democrats’ whip, was on course to remain in leadership, planning to move from his current role as the third-ranking Democrat in the House to the fourth, to assume the title of assistant Democratic leader . .

That transition was uncontested until Wednesday morning when Rhode Island Rep. challenged David Cicilline Clyburn for that role.

“I believe we need to have an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table, especially when there is so much at stake for our community in the coming years,” Cicilline, 61, wrote in a letter. “There is no doubt that the new Republican majority in the House will try to push the same anti-LGBTQ+ agenda that we have seen at the state level.”

The Democratic Caucus is expected to vote Thursday in the Cicilline-Clyburn contest.

‘Back against extremism’

Following Wednesday’s uncontested elections for the top three leadership slots, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar said they plan to work with the GOP when necessary, but will also challenge Republicans if they try to move the country too far to the right.

“We look forward to finding opportunities to work with the other side of the aisle and work with them where possible, but we will also push back against extremism,” Jeffries said.

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Clark said that the Democrats’ doors “will be open to any member from across the aisle who wants to work for the American people.”

But she warned that if Republicans “want to divide, if they want to obstruct, if they want political theater, instead of finding the solutions that the American people want, then we will be here to oppose.”

Aguilar said it was not lost on him what his election to leadership means for the Latino community and vowed to confront extremism.

“What we’re fighting is MAGA extremism, and we’ve heard loud and clear this election from the American public that they want us to work to get things done for them,” he said. “They want us to reduce the costs that they have, and they want us to eliminate extremism in every form and so that’s going to be our mandate.”

“Unfortunately, there are people on the other side of the aisle who go to white nationalist conferences and come from the far right corners of the country,” Aguilar continued. “And we’re going to have to keep pushing back against those ideas, too.”

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