Brooklyn roots crucial for Rep. Jeffries

It was a David-beats-Goliath moment that upended the political order in New York and the nation: political unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley of Queens in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Crowley was the House Democratic Caucus chair at the time, and a potential heir to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

What You Need To Know

  • Less than 20 years after first winning elected office, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries has rapidly climbed the political ladder, succeeding Nancy Pelosi earlier this month to become the first Black person to lead a major party on Capitol Hill
  • Jeffries represents a generational shift in Democratic leadership, a transition underscored by his public embrace of hip-hop
  • Jeffries was raised by working-class parents in Crown Heights, graduating from Midwood High, SUNY Binghamton, a master’s program at Georgetown and then NYU Law School
  • “[Jeffries] was brilliant. It was striking,” one law school professor said

His defeat had the side effect of opening up a key leadership role on Capitol Hill, which another New Yorker, Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, would soon step up to fill.

“The conversation sounded like, ‘Look, we have a once in a lifetime talent among us. Let’s realize that. Let’s nourish that. And let’s push it forward,'” Jeffries ally and Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks, who helped make the case for Jeffries with his fellow Democrats, recalled.

Jeffries won the job, and four years later, he made history by becoming the first Black person to head a major party in Congress, succeeding Pelosi earlier this month as the top House Democrat.

It was another step in a remarkably quick climb up the political ladder that began less than two decades ago, when he first won elected office.

Generational Change, History and Hip-Hop

Jeffries’ ascent to the role of top House Democrat after just a decade in Congress is part of a generational shift in Democratic leadership.

Jeffries, 52, is 30 years younger than Pelosi.

Underscoring that generational shift is Jeffries’ public embrace of hip-hop, from rapping at a fundraiser to quoting fellow Brookly-native Biggie Smalls in the first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

“If you don’t know, now you know,” Jeffries said during his remarks from the Senate floor during the trial.

Jeffries says his favorite hip-hop song — Biggie’s “Sky’s the Limit” — strikes a chord with him.

“It tracks sort of his very humble beginnings as a young person growing up in the 80s, or early 90s, in a tough part of Brooklyn, never possibly imagining that he would emerge as an international hip hop superstar,” Jeffries said. “He’s very reflective on his journey and also inspirational in suggesting to the others that the sky is the limit for them as well.”

When asked if the song resonates with him personally, Jeffries responded, “Well, I think that a lot that Biggie Smalls has done resonates personally with me.”

Jeffries’ Upbringing

Jeffries was raised by working-class parents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn as the neighborhood was wrestling with the crack epidemic.

“That was a different time, a different era, a different level of danger, that was ever-present and helped to shape the psychology of people who were living in New York at the time,” Jeffries said.

Hakeem Jeffries is pictured with his family. (Photo courtesy of Jeffries’ Instagram account)

Jeffries graduated from Midwood High, SUNY Binghamton, a master’s program at Georgetown, and then NYU Law School.

It was at NYU that he studied under Prof. Randy Hertz. Hertz recalls the first time he met Jeffries, when he was serving as a guest judge in a mock court.

“He was brilliant. It was striking. He was doing things and thinking about things that experienced lawyers generally don’t get. And he was figuring it all out as a second year student,” Hertz said.

Law school classmate Patrick Michel remembers Jeffries being very passionate when students talked about anything from world events to Supreme Court decisions.

“He’s sort of futuristic in many ways,” Michel said. “He’s sort of thinking about: what does the world need to look like, a year, five years, 10 years from now?”

Jeffries spoke at his NYU convocation, telling fellow graduates that a “lot of good needs to be done” in the world.

Entering the ‘World’

After NYU, Jeffires clerked for a federal judge in Manhattan, and entered corporate law. Jeffries’ time at the firm Paul Weiss briefly overlapped with that of future Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson.

“He may well have made partner had he decided to make this firm a career. But he saw his calling elsewhere. And I think the country is better off for it,” Johnson said.

That calling was public office. But his first attempts to get elected would prove less than successful.

This story is the first part of a four-part series, tracking Jeffries’ path to power. The remaining three segments will premiere later this week.

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