U.S. House Democrats make history electing first Black party leader in Congress

WASHINGTON — The three U.S. House Democrats who have led their party through four presidencies and thousands of floor votes formally passed the torch to the next generation Wednesday, when the party gathered behind closed doors to elect its top leaders for the 118th Congress. 

House Democrats named Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, as their leader. Jeffries, 52, will make history as the first Black lawmaker to lead any party in Congress.

Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts, was elected as whip, and Pete Aguilar, 43, of California, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as caucus chair. The trio will take over in January when Congress convenes for the next session and Democrats move into the minority. 

All three leaders-elect ran uncontested, solidifying a smooth transition that’s been on the horizon for years, but didn’t move forward until Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she’d step aside from leadership earlier this month. Pelosi, 82, will remain in Congress under the honorific title “Speaker Emerita.”

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, congratulated Jeffries, his fellow New Yorker.

“Hakeem Jeffries’ elevation as House Democratic leader is a turning point in the history of the United States Congress,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. “Never before has an African American leader, or any leader of color, held a top position for either party in either chamber.” 

Schumer, who lives in Brooklyn, said he was excited to work with Jeffries, who represents part of Brooklyn in the House, on Democratic priorities during the next Congress. 

“He is someone who I know will both hold the line on our Democratic values while being ready to listen and keep an open mind,” Schumer said. “I know he can work with the other side whenever it’s necessary.” 

Schumer said he looks forward to talking with “my neighbor from Brooklyn, four or six times a day, like I did with Speaker Pelosi.” 

Maryland’s Hoyer steps aside

House Democrats’ No. 2, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, also decided to step aside from leadership, clearing the way for Clark to move up from the assistant speaker role, which is currently the No. 4 leadership slot. 

Hoyer, 83, will remain in Congress next session, returning to the Appropriations Committee, which determines more than $1.5 trillion in government spending annually. 

Hoyer congratulated Jeffries as well, calling the new Democratic leader a “skilled consensus-builder, effective legislator, and experienced leader.”

Hoyer said that Jeffries “is well-equipped to help House Democrats deliver further results For the People during the 118th Congress and retake the Majority in 2024.”

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, 82, currently Democrats’ whip, was on track to remain in leadership, planning to move from his current role as the third-ranking Democrat in the House to the fourth, taking on the title of assistant Democratic leader. 

That transition was uncontested until Wednesday morning, when Rhode Island Rep. ​​David Cicilline challenged Clyburn for that role.

“I believe we must have an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table especially when so much is at stake for our community in the coming years,” Cicilline, 61, wrote in a letter. “There is no doubt that the new Republican majority in the House will try to push the same anti-LGBTQ+ agenda that we have seen at the state level.”

‘Push back against extremism’

Following Wednesday’s unchallenged elections for the top three leadership slots, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar said they plan to work with the GOP when necessary, but will also challenge Republicans if they try to move the country too far to the right. 

“We look forward to finding opportunities to partner with the other side of the aisle and work with them whenever possible, but we will also push back against extremism,” Jeffries said. 

Clark said Democrats’ doors would be “open for any member from across the aisle who wants to get to work for the American people.”

But she cautioned that if Republicans “want to divide, if they want to obstruct, if they want to have political theater, instead of finding those solutions the American people want, then we will be here to oppose.”

Aguilar said it wasn’t lost on him what his election to leadership means for the Latino community and pledged to confront extremism.

“What we’re fighting against is the MAGA extremism, and we heard loud and clear this election from the American public that they want us to work to get things done for them,” he said. “They want us to reduce the costs that they have, and they want us to stamp out extremism in every form and so that’s going to be our mandate.”

“Unfortunately, there’s folks on the other side of the aisle who go to white nationalist conferences and come from the most far right corners of the country,” Aguilar continued. “And we’re going to have to continue to push back against those ideas as well.”

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