Why you should care
Because isn’t it interesting to see a national politico go local?
“Hands up, don’t shoot,” the African-American man said, throwing his hands up by his ears before officers of the law. This was no loud protest on the streets of Oakland or Atlanta. This was Rep. Hakeem Jeffries in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Forty-five-year old Jeffries, a fresh-faced, hazel-eyed congressman in his second term repping New York’s 8th district, is on a mission to make a name for himself with tactics like this one. An occasionally described “loudmouth” or up-and-coming “next Obama,” depending on whom you ask, Jeffries has quickly risen from state assemblyman in 2012 to the House today. He’s capitalized on police reform, the Confederate flag and civil rights debates in the age of Eric Garner. It’s a promising moment for a politician like him — he’s found ways to get Republicans on board over prison reform, and is busy cultivating an air of bipartisanship.
Athletically built Jeffries speaks in slow, deliberate sentences during interviews, though his public speeches are rather more dramatic. So far, his résumé includes co-sponsoring a stop-and-frisk bill in 2010 to prevent the NYPD from holding on to information about stopped individuals who turn out to be innocent, and pushing to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in open view. Can he diversify his platform? Jeffries’ team points us to his tech and IP work away from the race headlines, and indeed, his background suggests the necessary skills. A former corporate attorney, he also served as counsel in the litigation department of two Fortune 100 companies, Viacom Inc. and CBS, including on the suit filed in Utah over Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction.”
Born in Brooklyn, Jeffries has lived in the borough all his life (save two years in D.C. to attend Georgetown) — a hometown advantage we imagine helped intimidate 30-year incumbent congressman Edolphus Towns into conceding his reelection bid to Jeffries. He represents one of the poorest congressional districts in New York: It includes the largely Black and Caribbean-American neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York; the median income is around $40,000 a year.
These are neighborhoods, after all, that faced turbulent racial tensions in the 1970s, fiery riots well into the ’90s and ongoing gang and drug troubles, not to mention the battles over rent control that still plague Brooklyn’s poverty-stricken residents and inspired Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But that’s the kind of world Jeffries hails from. Born in a Brooklyn hospital, raised in a middle-class home in once-troubled Crown Heights and a product of New York City’s public school system, he still lives just minutes away from his family home in Prospect Heights with his wife and two sons. And he credits his mother, Laneda Jeffries, a social worker, and his father, Marland Jeffries, a state substance-abuse counselor, for his “public service spirit.”
Yet despite his humble upbringing, Jeffries earned a graduate degree from Georgetown and a law degree from N.Y.U., and he secured a position at the white-shoe law firm Paul, Weiss, later turning down a role as partner there to pursue politics. We know, it’s a familiar story, hence the nickname he’s earned: “Brooklyn’s Barack.” (He laughs off the comparison, and, aside from sharing the same birthday as POTUS — August 4 — claims there is no likeness to their career paths.) “I have no interest or desire to run for president in my life,” he says. What about mayor? Jeffries told OZY he’d run for as many terms as the 8th district will elect him.
At the same time, Jeffries must walk a fine line. He might risk alienating voters with so much of his work swirling around standard-topic race issues. One of Obama’s great advantages, of course, was his ability to do exactly the opposite of that. Wide appeal? It’s a challenge. Jerry Skurnik, co-founder of political consultancy firm Prime New York, says Jeffries’ comparison to Obama is like the one in sports where a sportsman in his rookie year could become the next pro player. Similar background, highly educated, Skurnik summarizes. But others like Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ newsletter on American campaigns and elections, say it’s a “little hasty” to start comparing.
Jeffries has also been a cautious supporter of the controversial Pacific Park project, which promised to deliver at least 50 percent of its rental units as affordable housing (according to Jeffries, most units do not meet this criterion, disappointing voters); his pro-Israel stance, although favorable when he was first elected, has since divided Arab and Muslim constituents and diplomats. As of mid-August, he hadn’t made up his mind on the Iran nukes deal. Significantly, he hangs a Jewish blessing outside his office, given to him by a Jewish group he met with (in honor of the Russian Jews in his district, he says, skirting the Israel reference). And then there’s the conflict with the police: “To me, he sounds increasingly volatile,” says Leonard Levitt, who runs NYPD Confidential, a blog that claims to be on the inside of New York's police force. “He was mild-mannered the time I met [him] before he was a congressman. Now he’s a loudmouth.”