In a Show of Unity, House Democrats Elect Hakeem Jeffries Minority Leader
WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Wednesday elected new leaders to take the mantle from the three octogenarians who have led them for two decades, ushering in a long-awaited generational change that, for the first time in the history of either party or chamber in Congress, installed a trio of top leaders that includes no white men.
In a display of unity after midterm elections in which they lost the House but had a stronger than expected showing, Democrats skipped a vote and by acclamation elected Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York to be minority leader, making him the first Black person to hold the top spot. Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts was elected as whip, the lead vote counter for House Democrats, and Representative Pete Aguilar of California as the chairman of the party caucus, in charge of messaging.
Mr. Jeffries, 52, Ms. Clark, 59 and Mr. Aguilar, 43, who for years have positioned themselves as an unofficial joint slate of candidates and have patiently waited their turn, ran unopposed after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who has led the party for two decades, announced this month that she would step aside, paving the way for fresher faces at the top of her party.
Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, had considered trying to remain in leadership and said he had the support to do so, but ultimately decided against it. And Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, had weigheda challenge to Mr. Jeffries for the post of minority leader, but many Democrats said he lacked the votes. Last week, Mr. Schiff told Mr. Jeffries that he was instead exploring a run for Senate, and wished him well in the upcoming leadership election, according to a person familiar with the private conversation who disclosed it on the condition of anonymity.
The mood was jovial on Wednesday inside the ornate committee hearing room across from the Capitol where Democrats met to elect their new leaders.
“We want Petey Pie!” lawmakers chanted as they nominated Mr. Aguilar, using a nickname his grandmother gave him, according to two people in the room.
At another point, Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama led a call-and-response chant for Mr. Jeffries, borrowing a lyric from the rapper Biggie Smalls, whom Mr. Jeffries famously quoted on the Senate floor during former President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial.
“If you don’t know,” Ms. Sewell shouted out, “Now you know,” the members called back.
Democrats, for the most part, said they saw the lack of competitive races as a sign of strength and unity, and a stark contrast to the fractured Republican conference, where Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, is struggling to win the support he needs to become speaker amid a revolt on his right flank. A historically weak midterm performance has handed the G.O.P. a razor-thin House majority for the next Congress, making the job of leading it exceedingly difficult.
Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts was elected as whip, the lead vote counter for House Democrats.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
“It shows that Democrats are in array, Republicans are in disarray,” said Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, noting that the new slate of leaders, which includes a Black man, a white woman and a Latino man, “reflects the beautiful diversity of America.”
Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said she was excited to have a leader “who actually does represent the diversity of our caucus.”
A New U.S. Congress Takes Shape
Following the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats maintained control of the Senate while Republicans flipped the House.
- Divided Government: What does a split Congress mean for the next two years? Most likely a gridlock that could lead to government shutdowns and economic turmoil.
- Democratic Leadership: With Representative Hakeem Jeffries and Senator Chuck Schumer poised to lead the Democrats in the House and Senate, Brooklyn, where they both live, is entering the political spotlight.
- G.O.P. Leadership: After a midterms letdown, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank.
- Ready for Battle: An initiative by progressive groups called Courage for America is rolling out a coordinated effort to counter the new Republican House majority and expected investigations of the Biden administration.
Mr. Aguilar, in a news conference, said that “while Kevin McCarthy is auctioning off real estate and square footage for every vote he can, we’re united together.” Mr. Jeffries said House Democrats were united because they shared a commitment to fighting for “young people, seniors, immigrants, veterans, the poor, the sick, the afflicted, the least, the lost and the left behind.”
He said Democrats would “push back against extremism whenever necessary.”
Yet some Democrats called the uncontested election a missed opportunity for them to discuss how their party was shifting and how it should move forward.
“This is the most significant generational change that we have seen in House Democrats in several decades,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “I personally believe that we would benefit from a debate on what that means.”
The leadership elections marked a sea change for the caucus, which for two decades has been lead by the same trio of leaders, who effectively froze out dozens of more junior lawmakers who had been waiting to ascend.
Ms. Pelosi’s announcement before Thanksgiving that she would step down from leadership set the long-awaited change in motion. Mr. Hoyer quickly followed suit and Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the whip, said he would relinquish the third-ranking spot and seek a lower position.
His decision to stay in leadership, however, rankled some members.
On Wednesday, Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is gay, said he planned to challenge Mr. Clyburn for the position of assistant leader.
“With so much at stake, I think it is critical that the House Democratic leadership team fully reflect the diversity of our caucus and the American people by including an L.G.B.T.Q.+ member at the leadership table,” he said in a letter to his colleagues announcing his bid. That race will be decided on Thursday.
In remarks to reporters ahead of the election, Mr. Jeffries described the role he was about to assume as a “solemn responsibility.”
“When we get an opportunity as diverse leaders to serve in positions of consequence, the most meaningful thing that we can do in that space is do an incredibly good job,” Mr. Jeffries said.
He downplayed the divisions among Democrats and expressed confidence in his ability, along with his expected leadership team, to keep the party united in the coming year.
“There’s nothing more unifying than being in the minority and having a cleareyed objective and goal of getting back into the majority so we can continue to deliver big things for everyday Americans,” he said.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said he has known Mr. Jeffries, a Brooklyn neighbor, for years and expected to speak with him the same amount he now talks with Ms. Pelosi: about four to five times a day.
“It’s a little like Pelosi,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview. “When I first met her, I said, ‘This person is special, she’s going somewhere.’ I felt the same way about Hakeem.”
Mr. Schumer said Mr. Jeffries “always had the leg up” in the race to succeed Ms. Pelosi.
“He’s very good at reaching out to people of many ideologies,” Mr. Schumer said, predicting Mr. Jeffries would be able to reach across party lines.
“There’s going to be a whole bunch of Republicans who are not going to be happy with the MAGA direction of the party, and I couldn’t think of a better person to work with them to try and get some things done,” Mr. Schumer said.
Luke Broadwater and Stephanie Lai contributed reporting.