- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 5, 2022

House Democratic Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries is running a stealth campaign to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the party’s leader in the House, avoiding the limelight but spreading money around and working backroom deals to line up support.

He is among a handful of contenders for the House Democrats’ top job and is often outshone by rivals such as Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff of California, who both regularly fill TV screens or command a crush of reporters on Capitol Hill. 

But Mr. Jeffries, New York Democrat, has quietly lined up support across several factions in the caucus. 

He has reinforced his following with a more than $5 million war chest, according to federal campaign finance reports. Through far less than Mrs. Pelosi’s $15 million and Mr. Schiff’s $13 million, it’s still enough to help struggling incumbents and cement loyalty within the caucus.

Mr. Jeffries has been building a support base among the caucus’ moderate Democrats. He has doled out campaign cash to more than 50 vulnerable members with a preference for members of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition.

Funneling money through his Jeffries for Victory PAC and the Jobs, Education and Family First Jeff PAC, campaign finance records show that so far this cycle he gave $7,500 to Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, $2,500 each to Jennifer Wexton of Virginia and Peter Welch of Vermont.

So far this cycle, he gave a $5,000 contribution to candidates including Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut and $7,500 to Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is facing a far-left primary challenge by immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros.

The chairman has also boosted Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee frontline candidates who are taking on swing district GOP incumbents. Mr. Jeffries contributed to Navy veteran Jay Chen, who is running against Rep. Michelle Steel and Colorado state Sen. Brittany Pettersen vying for an open seat.

While mostly contributing to Blue Dogs and other moderates, Mr. Jeffries also gave $10,000 to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which he is also a member.

The battle to lead House Democrats in 2023, when Mrs. Pelosi has pledged to step aside, is expected to be a contest between the caucus’ far-left contingent and the more moderate members. Currently, the caucus is nearly evenly split between progressive and more moderate liberals — but the moderates have a slight edge.

Earlier this year, Mr. Jeffries helped launch Team Blue PAC with moderate Democratic Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Terri Sewell of Alabama. The political action committee backs incumbents against primary challengers from the left, Mr. Jeffries said, because the “hard-left” rhetoric has distorted the ideology of less liberal members.

Team Blue PAC has raised a little more than $250,000 this cycle and so far distributed about $25,000 between 10 incumbents, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Adam Green, a co-founder of the liberal advocacy group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Mr. Jeffries will have to pledge his allegiance to the middle ground or the more left-wing members of the party.

“If Hakeem Jeffries seeks higher leadership, he has it within his ability to be transformative at a time when saving democracy and the planet require boldness,” Mr. Green said. “He obviously would look for votes throughout the caucus, but at some point would need to decide whether to side more with the Jamie Raskins, Katie Porters, and Mondaire Jones’ of the world or the very corrupted Josh Gottheimer types.”

Mr. Green pointed out that Mr. Gottheimer among other members of the “mod squad” he led had taken corporate donations while advocating against President Biden’s $2 trillion social spending and climate bill.

Pressed about his leadership ambitions, Mr. Jeffries sticks to the House Democrats’ message de jour.

“We’ve got some issues in front of us that we have to work on, in terms of combating inflation and lowering gas prices, and lowering costs for everyday Americans,” Mr. Jeffries said. “That’s what I’m focused on at the moment.”

Democratic lawmakers say Mr. Jeffries’ quiet leadership is a strength and could prove an appealing contrast to the grandstanding and rhetorical bomb-throwing that dominates the hotly polarized political climate on Capitol Hill.

“I consider him one of the most articulate members of the Democratic caucus,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who served as co-chair with Mr. Jeffries on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “He is as smart as anybody I know. He’s got a tremendous work ethic. He’s honest, and he’s got guts. You put all of that together, and that’s a pretty good equation for continuing to rise in leadership.”

If elected as the top House Democrat, Mr. Jeffries would be the first Black lawmaker to hold the post. But he doesn’t have a lock on the diversity vote. Ms. Jayapal would be the first Indian American lawmaker leader and California Rep. Pete Aguilar, another contender, would be the first Hispanic person to hold the job.

In addition to Mr. Schiff, Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark of Massachusetts also has been floated as possible successors to Mrs. Pelosi and other aging members of leadership, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina.

In private conversations, Democratic staffers said they’ve seen contenders such as Ms. Jayapal more actively campaigning than Mr. Jeffries to move up in leadership.

Former Rep. Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat who lost his primary to Rep. Marie Newman in 2020, said the “inside game” is a viable path for Mr. Jeffries.

“He does seem like he’s been under the radar, at least publicly,” Mr. Lipinski said. “Some of that may be because he’s seen as sort of the front-runner to take over the leadership of the party after Nancy Pelosi and he’s decided that he’s going to play the inside game and not be as much of a public figure.”

Mr. Lipinski, who was in the Blue Dog Coalition and one of two pro-life Democrats in the caucus, said Mr. Jeffries had a good relationship with moderate members, and it’s not unusual for members vying for leadership roles to be putting their focus behind the scenes.

“For House leadership, it usually is more important to be doing the work behind the scenes relationship-wise, raising money for your parties and colleagues,” Mr. Lipinski said.

Mr. Jeffries, who is currently the No. 5 Democratic leader in the House, came to Congress after serving in the New York State Assembly and winning a primary bid against former Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns in 2012. He represents New York’s 8th district, which includes parts of the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs of New York City.

As caucus chair, Mr. Jeffries has made messaging on the contrast between Democrats and Republicans a key part of his rhetoric, tying the GOP to extremism and the 2021 Capitol riot. 

In his weekly press conference, Mr. Jeffries frequently refers to the GOP as a “cult” devoted to former President Donald Trump and paints the Democratic Party as a unified front that appears as a “mosaic” in its diversity.

Still, he faces resistance from the growing far-left wing of the party for protecting incumbents from primary challenges from the left.

• Mica Soellner can be reached at msoellner@washingtontimes.com.

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