Democrats Elect Younger, More Moderate Caucus Chair Over Progressive Stalwart

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, and Representative Barbara Lee at a press conference on April 28, 2017. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York defeated Representative Barbara Lee of California on Wednesday in the race to be the Democratic Caucus chairman. Jeffries declared his intention to run three weeks ago; Lee announced her bid in July, a short time after the current chairman, Representative Joe Crowley, lost his primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist. A challenger from the left, then, put the role up for grabs, while less progressive challenger will fill it.

Lee, who cast a lone vote against the invasion of Iraq in 2001, is a consistent left-wing presence in Congress. As Rebecca Traister previously reported for Intelligencer, Lee once organized with the Black Panther Party and entered political life as a delegate for Shirley Chisholm at the 1972 Democratic Convention. She opposes the Hyde Amendment, which blocks public funding for abortion services, and joined the Medicare for All Caucus when it formed in July. Jeffries, like Lee, is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He also signed onto former Representative John Conyers’s Medicare for All bill as well as Lee’s EACH Woman Act, which would repeal the Hyde Amendment. But in contrast to Lee, he often sounds more moderate, as a passage from a September profile in The Economist aptly demonstrates:

Mr Jeffries is not a member of the moderate New Democrats faction, but he often sounds as if he should be. He is a fan of charter schools and fiscal rectitude. Though he supports the principle of universal health-care coverage, he speaks of ‘the importance of market forces and getting things done in a responsible fashion.’ Quoting Ronald Reagan approvingly, he suggests this means promoting a flourishing private sector outside the ‘legitimate functions’ of government. The eternal quest to strike the right balance between the two ‘is the American dream,’ he muses.

Jeffries’s victory adds some much-needed age diversity to House leadership: he is 48, and Lee is 72. But it also puts a relative moderate in the fourth most powerful position in the Democratic caucus. The chairman presides over caucus meetings, and acts as a liaison between party leadership and rank-and-file members. The position is generally considered a stepping-stone to higher leadership positions within the party, like speaker of the House. Lee would have been the first woman to hold the position, and the first black woman to hold a leadership position in either party.

“I feel some disappointment only with the institutional barriers that I recognize that were out here during this campaign,” Lee told the Washington Post after her loss. “I’m really disappointed in that.” Fellow California Democrat Jackie Speier appears to agree:

In a more detailed statement released by her office, Lee said that she hopes her campaign will “inspire other women, and women of color in particular, to run for elected office and seek leadership positions,” and noted the words of her mentor, Chisholm, who lost a race for the same leadership position. “She used to tell people, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair,’” Lee continued. “My vision is a leadership table where chairs are no longer required. And I will keep working, alongside my colleagues, to realize that future.”

Lee’s loss is jarring, and not only because women of color earned so many Democratic victories on Election Night. At a time when the party’s base seems ready to turn left, House members seem reluctant to follow suit. Lee’s progressive politics are still further afield than many intend to go.

Dems Elect Younger, Moderate Caucus Chair Over Progressive