Tara Palmeri: What’s Hakeem Jeffries like?
I’ve known Hakeem for eight or nine years. He’s an incredibly brilliant, quiet person. He listens very intently. He remembers everything. He’s also incredibly personal when he gets to know you, much like Barack Obama
. I worked for Obama for a while. In some ways those two are similar—they are brilliant, internal thinkers. I think Bill Clinton
is similar in this particular way. When they start to talk, you realize they were listening the entire time. They are connecting all of the dots.
As you try to figure out how he’s trying to lead, understand that he’s quiet, he’s strategic, and he thinks nine steps ahead.
Pelosi was known to rule with an iron fist.
Speaker Pelosi and Hakeem Jeffries have different leadership styles. I think Hakeem’s leadership style is to make sure everyone is on board and feels like they are heard, and that they feel they have what they need to keep their seats. I think his style is to lead by example, and make sure everyone feels supported.
Is Jeffries an easy person to read?
No, absolutely not. He’s an attorney. I think all of the assumptions you would make about a successful attorney also apply here. He’s not an easy person to read but he’s someone who plans ahead and is very methodical and strategic in all of his decisions.
How well does he know this caucus? A lot of these members are coming into Congress after beating back serious challengers, and they’re going to think they have a license to stick to their guns.
You have to understand that Hakeem has traveled to many of these districts to campaign for many of our candidates that won. He’s studied all of them. He knows the issues like the back of his hand. He can personally help them message all of the things that are happening back in their districts. The way he works is like LeBron James. He could score 60 points and win the game but he’d rather score 20 and get everyone on the team involved and make sure everyone is getting what they need and that’s how he operates.
He did unveil his leadership as a package deal with Katherine Clark and Pete Aguilar as his deputies, instead of positioning himself as the future leader on his own, like Adam Schiff.
That exemplifies the way he operates. That’s consensus-building and letting other people get a seat at the table. He could get all of the credit. It illuminates the way he operates.
Fair, but this is a diverse caucus, and some people are going to want more than a seat at the table or to be heard, they’re going to want a pound of flesh.
On issues where significant support is needed throughout the caucus, Hakeem has the ability to rely on his personal relationships across the ideological spectrums of the caucus, and many of those people have a leadership role and can engage with their colleagues. Hakeem has the benefit of true personal relationships like with David Cicilline, Josh Gottheimer, Katherine Clark, André Carson, Dean Phillips, Grace Meng.
But who is in Hakeem’s inner circle?
Hakeem has this incredibly smart chief of staff, a Black woman who has been with him since the beginning in Brooklyn. She’s one of his most trusted people. She understands the intersection of New York politics with Washington. Hakeem also has a legislative director who is one the best in the business. She led the way for us on the First Step Act. She’s incredibly adept in figuring out how to achieve his legislative goals and she’s based in D.C. He’s also got a senior policy advisor, who is one of his trusted confidants and a few other talented individuals in his office whom he relies on.
Hakeem has a kitchen cabinet who really engage with him on a continual basis—Cedric Grant, Hakeem’s former chief of staff who built our operation in D.C.; Kirsten Donaldson, our former legislative director, she’s incredibly knowledgeable on I.P. issues. I remain in regular touch with him concerning a number of different issues. He has a few close friends at home that he keeps in touch with as well.
So it’s fair to say that he keeps a pretty close circle?
Absolutely. Discretion is everything.
But doesn’t he need more help now that he’s in leadership?
That’s a natural part of this process and it’s something that’s being worked on.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said there needs to be some healing in the Democratic caucus. He’s been accused of dunking on progressives when they lose primaries. What kind of relationship does he have with A.O.C.?
I don’t have particular insight into their relationship. I can only tell you that outside of being a member of the congressional progressive caucus, Hakeem has one of the most progressive voting records. He’s spent his career fighting for affordable housing, the living wage, all of these progressive things. His bonafides as it relates to being a progressive are unshakeable. The way you mend those fences is by starting with the fact that you agree with them on most things.
It’s going to be very tricky.
Because of the narrow majority, he’ll be in this position where he’ll be more powerful than any recent House minority leader because all of the votes will be so incredibly close. He’ll have a real opportunity to decide which bills deserve Democratic support—and in exchange for that he’ll be able to extract things that help the Democratic side and progressive side for the things that we believe in. He has the ability, like he did with the First Step Act, to bring together people who disagree and find areas of common ground.
What kind of concessions will he ask for?
He has a core set of values, like fair housing, the affordability problem in America, looking at criminal justice reform again. The larger conversation about tech regulation. The president has made clear that he would like Congress to put forward a bill on crypto.
How will Hakeem manage the ranking members on the committees?
That answer varies depending on what the issue will be. Generally speaking, Hakeem is not a micromanager; he’s someone who believes in empowering people to do their jobs. There will be a mix of the freedom to do what they need to do to lead committees but also sort of stepping in where things are needed. He has a significant grasp on issues related to technology, I.P., housing, criminal justice reform and education. My opinion here is that he picks his spots and then asks, is my input needed? How can I move the ball forward? How can I add value? He’s not in it for the ego or the personal glory.
How can Pelosi help Jeffries?
She’s an ocean of insight, guidance, intelligence and answers. She’s got decades of experience that she can use to help him as he moves along in the next several years. She’s going to be priceless. She’ll pour into him in a real way and really help him blossom into a next generation leader.
She had a lot of cred with Biden that goes way back. How does Hakeem build a relationship with him?
Joe Biden is the most affable guy I’ve ever met. Joe Biden knows how to build relationships with people, he knows how to build trust with people and I think he and Hakeem have an incredibly strong partnership based on shared values and interests. When he was younger, he had a lot of engagement with the Black community.
Does he have a close relationship with anyone at the White House now?
I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head.
He’ll be a historic leader as the first Black minority leader. He could have icon status like Pelosi. Do you see him embracing that status? Maybe even using it as a weapon?
I think he understands the moment and he embraces the moment.
Will he tell his story in a glossy magazine piece?
I think Hakeem’s first focus is the work and then figure out the rest later. Self-promotion is not his style. It’s just not his style. I was his communications director for six years; he and I would have regular conversations later in the week because I would want him to do Meet the Press or another Sunday show and he would say, “No. I’ve got two church visits on Sunday and I plan on spending the entire time there. Those to me are more important than any promotional opportunity.”
That’s not very Washington.
I know, every year he gets invited to the White House Correspondents dinner and all the parties surrounding it and he never goes. And I could never get him to go. He would say, I’ve got a senior center visit in Canarsie, or I’ve got Congress on Your Corner in the district. He’s done it his entire career, he chooses that over the limelight.
What’s his relationship like with Kevin McCarthy?
Much has been written about what they think their relationship is. But the reality is that Hakeem is about the work. In terms of how good or bad his relationship is with the person he’s working with, that’s immaterial; the main thing is what are we working on and can we get it done. He’ll work with whoever is on the other side to get it done. Hakeem is not the type of person to say I don’t like this person so I’m not going to work with them.
What about fundraising? He’s starting on third base. He only needs a few seats to take back the House so a lot of pressure is on him.
He’s from New York. The question of fundraising answers itself. He’ll absolutely be able to raise money to take back the House in 2024.