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New Blood

House Democrats Will Soon Be Under New Management. Here Are Their First Big Challenges.

Nancy Pelosi will give way to a younger core of party bosses who will need to quickly learn how to share power—and be a minority party.

Bill Clark/Getty Images
Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries

With Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she will not seek reelection as the leader of the House Democratic Party, culminating a historic two decades in the position, the next generation of leadership is consolidating its power.

While there was some question whether Representative Steny Hoyer, the current majority leader, would seek Pelosi’s position, he chose to step down and endorse Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the current Democratic caucus chair, for the post. Representative Katherine Clark and Representative Pete Aguilar are seeking to complete the troika as Democratic whip and Democratic caucus chair, respectively. Representative Jim Clyburn announced that he would seek the assistant leadership position, making him the only current member of leadership seeking to stay in power next Congress.

Pelosi endorsed Jeffries, Clark, and Aguilar in a statement on Friday. But the changing of the guard will be significant. Pelosi has held her conference together on incredibly difficult votes, often through sheer willpower. The new era may represent a different style in leadership: In a letter to colleagues announcing his candidacy, Jeffries highlighted his goal of “empowering every member.”

“Each member from the most junior to the most senior, brings to the table enormous talent, skill, vision and experience. At this moment of transition, we are presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to further unleash our full potential as a team,” Jeffries wrote. “In this spirit, it will be my mission to make sure that every single Member of the Caucus has an authentic seat at the legislative table and the maximum opportunity to excel.”

Naturally, prospective leaders often make these kinds of promises. But in this case, it’s one that progressive members of the House caucus in particular want to hear—especially those who have no experience serving in the minority. “I hope the next leader is one who recognizes the beauty and brilliance of our diversity as a nation,” said Representative Jamaal Bowman, a progressive from New York. Bowman was elected in 2020 after defeating incumbent Representative Eliot Engel in a primary.

Jeffries may have supported Engel at the time, but there appears to be no bad blood now, as Bowman said he would support Jeffries as Democratic leader. “He has a clear mandate and a vision for what America needs,” Bowman said. “Being a Black man, I think he empathizes with all marginalized groups that have been left out.” Jeffries would be the first Black party leader in Congress. (Bowman also approved of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Jeffries both being from New York City: “That’s pretty gangster.”)

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the highest-profile members of the party’s progressive wing and someone who reportedly mulled backing a 2020 progressive primary challenger against Jeffries, said that she hopes the Democrats’ next leaders will better appreciate progressive members’ values. “We have to keep youth turnout high, and the way that we’re going to do that is with our substantive work in Congress,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And so ensuring that we have individuals that are not just receptive to that but welcome it, encourage it, and encourage those who drive that up is going to be very important.”

To that end, she said, she hopes Democratic leaders are “ensuring that we have people with a track record serving some of the core constituencies that helped deliver us this election.” She also said that she would like to see a “shift away from large-dollar and corporate funding.” Some progressives have criticized Jeffries for taking donations from corporate interests. Ocasio-Cortez was elected in 2018 after taking down Representative Joe Crowley, a Jeffries ally, in the primary. She has never served in the minority.

There will likely not be any true competition from progressives to the trio of Jeffries, Clark, and Aguilar: Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will likely pass on a larger bid for caucus chair. But Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive who was elected in 2016, predicted that “power is going to be decentralized with this generational change.”

“One of the things that has happened to Congress is that the formal leadership power matters but matters a lot less,” California Representative Ro Khanna said. “A lot of Congress is about shaping public opinion or persuading movements of people across the country.… You may see now 10 different voices emerging where you don’t have the same centralization.”