Hakeem Jeffries of New York was on course on Friday to be the first Black party leader in Congress, declaring his candidacy for House minority leader after securing key endorsements to succeed Nancy Pelosi, the current speaker who announced her withdrawal from leadership on Thursday.
Democrats will cede control of the House in January, after midterm elections in which Republicans performed less well than expected but still took the lower chamber.
Jeffries announced his candidacy after Democrats moved swiftly to head off internal battles and let a new, younger generation take the controls.
Pelosi, from California, was the first woman to be speaker and filled the role from 2007 to 2011 and since 2019. But she is now 82.
Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 83 and the current majority leader, will also step aside. On Thursday, he said: “Now is the time for a new generation of leaders, and I am proud to offer my strong endorsement to Hakeem Jeffries for Democratic leader.”
James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House whip, is also 82. He was reported to be seeking to become assistant leader but for the top spot he endorsed Jeffries, 30 years his junior.
Clyburn’s endorsements carry notable clout. As the senior Black Democrat in Congress, his approval of Joe Biden’s presidential bid was widely held to have propelled the former vice-president to victory in the presidential primary in 2020.
Jeffries was reportedly set to be joined in House Democratic leadership by Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, as minority whip, and Pete Aguilar of California, a member of the January 6 committee who will run for caucus chair.
Joe Neguse of Colorado, another rising Black Democrat who was a House manager in the second Trump impeachment, was also seeking a leadership slot but faced being blocked by Clyburn.
Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was reported to be backing off a bid for a leadership role, in the aftermath of an embarrassing strategic error over a letter from progressives to Biden about US aid to Ukraine.
Clark, 59 and currently assistant speaker, told the Washington Post: “I have the track record of bringing people and solutions together, and I have built trust across the caucus in different ideological corners, geographic parts of our caucus by listening and really knowing the issues that members care about, where they need to be able to deliver for their districts.”
Jeffries is widely held to be an effective communicator, unafraid of confronting opponents. On his official Twitter account, the pinned tweet shows a stern rebuke of the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, from a House judiciary committee session earlier this year, shortly after leak of the decision overturning the right to abortion.
Jeffries said: “Let me ask this question of Brother Thomas. Why are you such a hater?
“Hate on civil rights, hate on women’s rights, hate on reproductive rights, hate on voting rights, hate on marital rights, hate on equal protection under the law, hate on liberty and justice for all, hate on free and fair elections? Why are you such a hater and you think you can get away with it? Escape public scrutiny because you think that shamelessness is your superpower?”
Jeffries rose to national notice when he was elected a decade ago, in part thanks to being called, by sources including the Washington Post, “Brooklyn’s Barack Obama”.
Theodore Wells, Jeffries’ former mentor at the Manhattan law firm Paul Weiss, told the Post, Jeffries was “someone who works easily within both the Black and white communities” and represents “a natural evolution in the background of African American politicians.
“The prior generation of African American politicians had their roots in the civil rights movements of the 1960s, but Hakeem’s generation grew up in a more multicultural America, and in that sense their backgrounds and perspectives are different.”
On Thursday, one House Democrat, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, told Bloomberg News Jeffries had been “a phenomenal caucus chair. I can’t think of a single misstep that he’s made. So I think he’s up to” being minority leader.