Hakeem Jeffries elected to key role for Democrats in political milestone

Hakeem Jeffries elected to key role for Democrats in political milestone
Hakeem Jeffries is to lead the Democrats in the House (Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democrat Hakeem Jeffries is to be the first black American to head a major political party in Congress when long-serving Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team step aside next year.

Showing rare party unity after their midterm election losses, the House Democrats moved seamlessly from one history-making leader to another, choosing the 52-year-old New Yorker, who has vowed to “get things done”, even though Republicans won control of the chamber.

The closed-door vote was unanimous, by acclamation.

“It’s a solemn responsibility that we are all inheriting,” Mr Jeffries told reporters on the eve of the party meeting. “And the best thing that we can do as a result of the seriousness and solemnity of the moment is lean in hard and do the best damn job that we can for the people.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is stepping down (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

It is rare that a party that lost the midterm elections would so easily regroup and stands in stark contrast with the upheaval among Republicans, who are struggling to unite around leader Kevin McCarthy as the new House speaker as they prepare to take control when the new Congress convenes in January.

Wednesday’s internal Democratic caucus votes of Mr Jeffries and the other top leaders came without challengers.

The trio led by Mr Jeffries, who will become the Democratic minority leader in the new Congress, includes 59-year-old Katherine Clark of Massachusetts as the Democratic whip and 43-year-old Pete Aguilar of California as caucus chairman.

The new team of Democratic leaders is expected to slide into the slots held by Ms Pelosi and her top lieutenants — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina — as the aged 80-plus leaders make way for the next generation.

Ms Pelosi, of California, has led the House Democrats for the past 20 years, and colleagues late on Tuesday granted her the honorific title of “speaker emerita”.

“It an important moment for the caucus — that there’s a new generation of leadership,” said Chris Pappas, ahead of voting.

While Democrats will be relegated to the House minority in the new year, they will have a certain amount of leverage because the Republican majority is expected to be so slim and Mr McCarthy’s hold on his party fragile.

Kevin McCarthy is set to be the new Speaker (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The House’s two new potential leaders, Mr Jeffries and Mr McCarthy, are of the same generation but have almost no real relationship to speak of — in fact the Democrat is known for levelling political barbs at the Republican from afar, particularly over the Republican’s embrace of former president Donald Trump.

“We’re still working through the implications of Trumpism,” Mr Jeffries said. “And what it has meant, as a very destabilising force for American democracy.”

Mr Jeffries said he hopes to find “common ground when possible” with Republicans but will “oppose their extremism when we must”.

On the other side of the Capitol, Mr Jeffries will have a partner in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as two New Yorkers are poised to lead the Democratic leadership in Congress. They live about a mile apart in Brooklyn.

“There are going to be a group, in my judgment, of mainstream Republicans who are not going to want to go in the MAGA direction, and Hakeem’s the ideal type guy to work with them,” Mr Schumer said in an interview, referencing Mr Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

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