How a secret meeting put Hakeem Jeffries on track to replace Pelosi

How a secret meeting put Hakeem Jeffries on track to replace Pelosi

The 52-year-old Jeffries was concerned enough to offer to fly to South Carolina to seek advice from the 82-year-old Clyburn. The junior lawmaker wanted to gently make sure his senior in the Congressional Black Caucus knew about Schiff’s quiet campaign — and to more gently warn Clyburn of the risk of splitting votes between them and opening the way for the ambitious Californian.

Jeffries need not have been alarmed.

“There’s nothing I would do to stop the progress of our young up-and-coming Democrat, and I see him as a young up-and-coming Democrat,” Clyburn said in an interview about Jeffries. “He knows that, I didn’t have to tell him – but I did.”

Asked if he would be willing to serve in an emeritus leadership role, Clyburn said he is “willing to do whatever the caucus thinks is in their best interest,” noting that Jeffries “called me in as a mentor.”

South Carolina’s assurances — his most outspoken yet and downright blunt in the diplomatic parlance of leadership races — are likely to prove a linchpin for Jeffries’ all-but-certain campaign.

Jeffries declined to comment. Schiff’s spokeswoman, Cate Hurley, said his “time and energy” is focused on helping colleagues “maintain the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.”

Even before the savage attack on Pelosi’s husband last week, House Democrats gave her a measure of public respect. Jeffries and Schiff have traveled extensively to help their colleagues in the midterm campaign, but have mentioned their aspirations to other lawmakers only in private meetings or subsequent phone calls. Even then, the two tried to be careful not to explicitly state that they were running for her job or make firm requests for support.

The reticence, however, masks what many House Democrats assume: that they will lose their majority on Tuesday and that the speaker will step down, creating the first vacancy at the top of the caucus since Pelosi succeeded Richard Gephardt two decades ago.

What was less clear to lawmakers, at least before Clyburn’s candid remarks, was whether he and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer would battle to succeed Pelosi.

Unlike Schiff, 62, and Jeffries, the two octogenarian leaders did not light up their colleagues’ cellphones with calls and texts alerting them to their interest in the two younger lawmakers’ fashion — what one House Democrat called an “if-then” approach — “if there is an opening at the top of the club, then I would be interested.”

Still, if Hoyer or Clyburn were to seek the top job, it could complicate matters for Schiff and Jeffries.

The dynamic could prove especially tricky if Clyburn runs, raising the prospect of a generational battle within the CBC.

However, if the South Carolinian makes way for his younger colleague, the 58-member bloc would rally overwhelmingly to Jeffries, paving the way for him to become the first African-American to serve as a congressional leader.

“He brings an old-school political acumen with an ability to connect with younger people,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, another CBC member, said of Jeffries, noting that he would not officially declare his preference until after the election. .

Privately, a number of Democratic lawmakers have said Jeffries is their best option as leader because he is the rare member who is experienced in both the outside and inside games, skilled enough to deliver the party’s message on television, but also attuned to the needs and desires of his colleagues.

Jeffries’ rise would be significant for a number of reasons. There is his history-making status, a descendant of enslaved people leading his party in the building partially built by enslaved people.

With the current trio of House Democrats in their 80s, switching to a lawmaker who came of age in the 1980s and is devoted to quoting Biggie Smalls and even rapping at fundraisers would also further fuel questions about the future of a president who will 80.

Then there’s the matter of Pelosi leaving.

A historical figure in her own right, the speaker kept the once fractious caucus remarkably united during a 20-year period during which Republicans went through four leaders opposite her.

However, what she was unable to do was prepare an heir. This shortcoming is why some House Democrats believe Schiff suddenly began calling out his colleagues earlier this year.

Pelosi’s lieutenants insist she is not pushing her California running mate to take on Jeffries, but she has tried to find him a seat before. Last year, she lobbied California Gov. Gavin Newsom to nominate Schiff as attorney general — and when the governor passed over him, Pelosi left Newsom a message expressing her disappointment in no uncertain terms.

To MSNBC-friendly Democratic activists and donors, Schiff may be the second-best-known House Democrat and, having helped lead two of Donald Trump’s impeachment trials, Pelosi’s de facto deputy.

But a cable TV profile doesn’t make a leader, at least not in relationship-driven politics in congressional elections.

Schiff helped himself by donating to his colleagues, raising or giving a combined $14 million to House candidates this election. But now he is playing catch-up with Jeffries, who has been building support since being elected to the helm after the 2018 election.

“He’s reaping the seeds that Adam is planting,” said Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, whose connection to Jeffries stems from that post-2018 leadership race.

Like Phillips, Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan was also first elected in the 2018 Democratic wave, and when she met Jeffries over nachos in her Detroit suburb last month, she told him she was on board.

Another senior MP couldn’t believe it was to inform Chief of what should have been obvious. “The a fact he didn’t know I was for Hakeem who tells you how out of touch he is,” said this MP. “I’m part of Hakeem’s whip operation.”

To Schiff’s detriment, he’s not only playing catch-up, he’s clearly playing catch-up. More focused on raising his media profile than cultivating colleagues during the Trump years — and seen in the caucus as capable but aloof — his outreach has led some lawmakers to mock him privately for only texting them for the first time when he became interested in the leadership.

In private, Schiff expressed his belief that the 42-member delegation of California Democrats could lead him into contention.

But that block is hardly united around him. “If there is a change in leadership, I think Hakeem would be a strong, unifying leader,” said Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., who is eyeing the DCCC chairmanship.

Another of Schiff’s California colleagues said Schiff should avoid the near-certainty of losing the leadership race when lawmakers return to Washington after the midterms. “If he had played his cards right, he would have said, ‘I’m not going to do it, I need your help for the Senate,'” said the lawmaker.

With over $21 million in his House campaign account, money that could be funneled into a Senate bid, he could be formidable in California’s TV-driven state politics.

That is, however, assuming there is a race at all.

If Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein leaves the seat before her term expires in 2025, Newsom said he would nominate a black woman as senator.

That same attention to the Democratic coalition is what may ultimately pose the biggest challenge to Schiff’s home ambitions.

It’s not just the symbolism of a white man’s eavesdropping, it’s not the raising of the first black leader to succeed the first female speaker. It’s that Jeffries is poised to go up against a pair of favorite alternates, Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California, who together reflect the makeup of their party — black, white and Hispanic.

Few Democrats understand the power of party diversity more fully than Clyburn, the man whose eleventh-hour endorsement helped revive President Biden’s campaign in the first primary state with a large share of black voters.

Caucus commitment to different leaders is “what this country is all about,” he said.

And, he added, it “bodes well for Hakeem.”

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