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  • The San Juan Daily Star

In a show of unity, House Democrats elect Hakeem Jeffries minority leader

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.

By Annie Karni and Emily Cochrane

House Democrats earlier this week elected a new generation of leaders to take the mantle from the three octogenarians who have led them for two decades, installing a trio of top leaders that, for the first time in congressional history, includes no white men.

In a display of unity after midterm elections in which they lost the House but had a stronger than expected showing, Democrats skipped a vote and by acclamation elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York to be minority leader, making him the first Black person to claim the top spot. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts was elected as whip, the lead vote counter for House Democrats, and Rep. Pete Aguilar of California as the chairman of the party caucus, in charge of messaging.

Jeffries, 52, Clark, 59, and Aguilar, 43, who for years have positioned themselves as an unofficial joint slate and patiently waited their turn, ran unopposed after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who has led the party for two decades, announced after the midterm elections that she would step aside, paving the way for fresher faces at the top of her party.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, had considered trying to remain in leadership and said he had the support to do so, but ultimately decided against it. And Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had considered a challenge to Jeffries for the post of minority leader, but many Democrats said he lacked the votes. Last week, Schiff told Jeffries that he was instead exploring a run for Senate, and wished him well in the upcoming leadership election, according to a person familiar with the private conversation who disclosed it on the condition of anonymity.

The mood was jubilant on Wednesday inside the ornate committee hearing room across from the Capitol where Democrats met to elect their new leaders.

Democrats, for the most part, said they saw the lack of competitive races as a sign of strength and unity, and a stark contrast to the fractured Republican conference, in which Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, is struggling to win the support he needs to become speaker amid a revolt on his right flank. A historically weak midterm performance has handed the GOP a razor-thin House majority for the next Congress, making the job of leading it exceedingly difficult.

“It shows that Democrats are in array, Republicans are in disarray,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., noting that the new slate of leaders, which includes a Black man, a white woman and a Latino man, “reflects the beautiful diversity of America.” Lieu, later Wednesday, won election to be the vice chair of the Democratic caucus, putting him in line to become the first Asian American to hold that post.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said she was excited to have a leader “who actually does represent the diversity of our caucus.”

Aguilar, in a news conference after the top three jobs were cemented, Aguilar said that the election showed that “while Kevin McCarthy is auctioning off real estate and square footage for every vote he can, we’re united together.” Jeffries said House Democrats were united because they shared a commitment to fighting for “young people, seniors, immigrants, veterans, the poor, the sick, the afflicted, the least, the lost and the left behind.”

He said Democrats would “push back against extremism whenever necessary.”

Yet some Democrats called the uncontested election a missed opportunity for them to discuss how their party was shifting and how it should move forward.

“This is the most significant generational change that we have seen in House Democrats in several decades,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “I personally believe that we would benefit from a debate on what that means.”

The leadership elections marked a sea change for the caucus, which for two decades has been led by the same trio of leaders, who effectively froze out dozens of more junior lawmakers who had been waiting to ascend.

Pelosi’s announcement before Thanksgiving that she would step down from leadership set the long-awaited change in motion. Hoyer quickly followed suit, and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the whip, said he would relinquish the third-ranking spot and seek a lower position.

His decision to stay in leadership, however, rankled some members.

On Wednesday, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is gay, said he planned to challenge Clyburn for the position of assistant leader.

“With so much at stake, I think it is critical that the House Democratic leadership team fully reflect the diversity of our caucus and the American people by including an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table,” he said in a letter to his colleagues announcing his bid. That race will be decided Thursday.

In remarks to reporters ahead of the election, Jeffries described the role he was about to assume as a “solemn responsibility.”

“When we get an opportunity as diverse leaders to serve in positions of consequence, the most meaningful thing that we can do in that space is do an incredibly good job,” Jeffries said.

He downplayed the divisions among Democrats and expressed confidence in his ability, along with his expected leadership team, to keep the party united in the coming year.

“There’s nothing more unifying than being in the minority and having a clear-eyed objective and goal of getting back into the majority so we can continue to deliver big things for everyday Americans,” he said.

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