Sunday, 14 Apr 2024

The Dual Education of Hakeem Jeffries

The campus at Binghamton University was in uproar. Whispers of outside agitators swirled among the mostly white student body. Security was heightened.

The source of the friction was the planned appearance of a polarizing Black studies professor who had referred to white people as “ice people” and accused “rich Jews” of financing the slave trade. Outraged Jewish students demanded the event be canceled; their Black peers were incensed over the potential censorship.

And wedged hard in the middle was Hakeem Jeffries.

As the political representative for the Black student group that invited the professor to the upstate New York campus, Mr. Jeffries, a 21-year-old college senior with a flattop and a dashiki, had the delicate task of cooling tensions while holding firm on the invitation. There was also another complication: The speaker, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, was his uncle.

The episode, in February 1992, was an early precursor of both the culture-war disputes now flashing across the country and the battles that Mr. Jeffries faces as the new leader of House Democrats. Republicans have begun resurfacing it to try to tie their new foil to his uncle’s more incendiary views, which he says he does not share.

But the Binghamton events also show that even at a young age, Mr. Jeffries had a flair for oratory, a taste for a good argument and an unusual knack for navigating conflict without inflaming it.

“The proper way to debate scholarship is with scholarship,” Mr. Jeffries told reporters at the time. “Not with high-tech lynchings, media assassinations, character desecrations and venomous attacks.”

The speech went ahead. It was still full of invective but was delivered and received peacefully.

Three decades later, accounts of Mr. Jeffries’s history-making ascent have largely focused on his relative youth and his time as a House impeachment manager. But to fully understand how he claimed power and might wield it as the first person of color to lead a party in Congress, it is instructive to retrace the divergent experiences that fueled his rise from Brooklyn to Washington, as described in dozens of interviews with friends, allies and adversaries.

Call it the dual education of Hakeem Jeffries, a charismatic and enigmatic son of both Brooklyn and Big Law, who was shaped as much by hip-hop and the Black Baptist church as by the offices of corporate America where he handled high-stakes litigation.

He struggled to break into politics as an insurgent in one of the country’s most diverse political arenas. But once in the State Legislature, he quickly showed mastery of Albany, pushing through landmark criminal justice bills while holding down a lucrative part-time role at a personal injury law firm.

Asked in an interview in his spacious new Capitol office to describe his political brand, Mr. Jeffries, 52, replied, “Reasonable, common-sense, tough, get-stuff-done Democrat.” He said his upbringing and career choices formed the foundation for his center-left political identity, heightened sensitivity to racial and pocketbook issues and exceedingly deliberative approach.

“The Brooklyn identity is you’ve got to make uneven, unequal pieces fit in the puzzle: the Latino, the Orthodox Jewish, the Black, the Caribbean,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Very few cities have that kind of makeup. No one has mastered it better than Hakeem.”

His critics, particularly on his party’s left flank, take a harsher view: They argue that Mr. Jeffries’s consensus-building style and long ties to Wall Street donors have made him too deferential to a power structure stacked against confronting climate change and the widening wealth gap.

“Hakeem Jeffries represents an old style of politics rooted in back-room deals and corporate donors,” said Jabari Brisport, a democratic socialist who was elected in 2020 to represent Mr. Jeffries’s longtime Brooklyn political base in the State Senate. “He has to choose who he is going to side with.”

Republicans say just the opposite, that Mr. Jeffries is too radical and so inexperienced he needs “training wheels.”

For now, he has managed to win plaudits within his own party and the grudging respect of some Republicans. But the real tests lie ahead as he tries to fend off Republican attempts to undo his party’s policies and unite his fractious caucus to win back the House.

A child of Black Brooklyn

Mr. Jeffries came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, when central Brooklyn was becoming one of the most important Black urban centers in the country. This was the area that sent the first Black woman, Shirley Chisholm, to Congress just before Mr. Jeffries was born: a dense hotbed for experiments in Black empowerment and education; a cradle for hip-hop culture and political power; and eventually a center of the drug trade.

“Some of the neighborhoods that people now can’t afford to live in were the same places where on occasion you might step over a crack vial,” said Lenny Singletary, a friend since childhood. “It was a time when family was important, and the old adage was true: It took a village to raise a child.”

The Jeffries family stood out. His parents each had union jobs that helped pay the mortgage on a modest brownstone in the borough’s Crown Heights section.

Mr. Jeffries’s mother, Laneda Jeffries, a social worker, traced her roots to Cape Verde, the islands off the west coast of Africa colonized by the Portuguese. His paternal grandparents moved north during the Great Migration, carrying stories of slavery and lynchings.

His father, Marland Jeffries, was a substance abuse counselor who once ran an unsuccessful campaign for State Assembly on a civil rights slate. He and his wife named their elder son Hakeem Sekou, which connotes wisdom in Arabic and West African traditions. “Whatever you’re going to be, you’re going to be beyond a master’s degree,” Marland Jeffries once said. (Hasan Jeffries, Hakeem’s only sibling, is a historian at Ohio State University.)

Marland Jeffries shared that emphasis with his brother, Leonard, who led the Black Studies Department at City College of New York. Professor Jeffries’s scholarship pushed the history of Africa and its diaspora toward the center of European-dominated narratives.

But in the early 1990s, his work began to attract intense backlash among white academics and political figures. They denounced a 1991 speech that said, “Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a system for the destruction of Black people.” Dr. Jeffries, who could not be reached for comment, lost his position as department chair, and the subsequent legal fight over free speech was covered closely in city newspapers.

Mr. Jeffries, who has long had support in Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish communities, has distanced himself from his uncle’s views and, at times, sought to minimize what he knew about the controversy in the 1990s — despite his role defending Dr. Jeffries at Binghamton. Still, his family clearly influenced his worldview.

“Black progressives do tend to tackle issues first and foremost with an understanding that systemic racism has been in the soil of America for over 400 years,” the congressman told The Atlantic in 2021. “Hard-left progressives tend to view the defining problem in America as one that is anchored in class. That is not my experience.”

By the mid-1980s, with the drug trade metastasizing, school and church became a refuge for young Hakeem Jeffries. In 1984, a porch two doors down from his home was peppered with gunshots during a block party. Childhood friends started selling drugs; some went to prison.

At Brooklyn’s diverse Midwood High School, he excelled in the honors program, obsessed over music, played baseball and wrote in the yearbook that he hoped to be a lawyer.

Wilkie Cornelius, another friend, remembered that Mr. Jeffries raised his hand in class “like a machine.” He also recalled Mr. Jeffries pouring himself into a one-on-one rap battle outside of school. “His style was laid back and complex for the time,” he said.

The Jeffries family attended Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Mr. Jeffries donned white gloves each Sunday as an usher. As a hub of the Black community, it also provided some of his earliest political education.

Mr. Jeffries listened to sermons by Dr. Sandy F. Ray, a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., and heard visiting politicians. The pastor at Cornerstone, the Rev. Harry S. Wright, was the brother of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Friends say he influenced the future congressman’s speaking style with heavy use of repetition, alliteration and demonstrative hand movement.

“Hakeem’s an interesting study,” said the Rev. Lawrence Aker III, Cornerstone’s current pastor. “He’s well educated and well schooled, but this guy can still spit the lyrics of Biggie Smalls or any urban rapper coming out of the ’80s or ’90s. He understands what I would call a hybrid model.”

Honing his pedigree

Mr. Jeffries’s first deep immersion in the world outside Brooklyn came in 1988, when he made the four-hour drive to Binghamton in New York’s Southern Tier. The culture shock was unavoidable.

“There was racism. You’d walk around in the town and someone could say something to you freely that you didn't ask for,” said Marcia Rowe-Riddick, a friend.

Mr. Jeffries acclimated quickly. He roomed with Victor Williams, an actor later known for his role as Deacon Palmer on “The King of Queens,” and met his future wife, Kennisandra Arciniegas. He was elected president of Kappa Alpha Psi, the historically Black fraternity, and excelled in the highly choreographed dance routines known as step shows.

He was also becoming politically active. His senior year, he was elected the political representative for the Black Student Union, the position that put him in the middle of his uncle’s visit to campus. But while fellow student activists sometimes risked arrest, Mr. Jeffries had a different perspective.

“He basically took the intellectual approach to everything,” said Carlos A. Pimentel, the president of the Black Student Union.

Years later, as a lawyer and lawmaker, Mr. Jeffries adopted the same approach when privately counseling activists like Mr. Sharpton on cases involving police violence.

“‘I’m not the guy who’s going to go to jail with you,’” Mr. Sharpton recalled his saying. “‘I’m the guy who’s going to get you out of jail.’”

By the time he reached law school, Mr. Jeffries was speaking openly of his own ambitions. He had earned a public policy degree at Georgetown and was developing a network of like-minded young Black men, including Adrian Fenty, the future mayor of Washington, and Patrick Gaspard, later the White House political director. When he was selected as the only student speaker on graduation day, even the dean predicted he would end up in Congress one day.

“You just kind of know when someone is operating at a different speed,” Mr. Fenty said.

After a clerkship for Judge Harold Baer Jr. in the Southern District of New York, he chose not to go directly into politics or public service, but to take a job at Paul, Weiss, the sort of law firm that could confer legal and business prestige.

Mr. Jeffries helped settle an intellectual property case involving Lauryn Hill and her acclaimed album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” He later served as litigation counsel for Viacom and CBS, where he defended the company after Justin Timberlake briefly exposed Janet Jackson’s breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

His legal career had another important benefit: forging a political alliance with Theodore V. Wells Jr., a nationally known and politically connected defense lawyer. While Mr. Wells said he “spent a lot of time begging” Mr. Jeffries to become a partner, he threw himself fully into Mr. Jeffries’s first campaign.

The Barack of Brooklyn

As a party leader, Mr. Jeffries has bristled as the Democrats’ activist left has challenged incumbents, many of them older Black lawmakers. But as a 29-year-old insurgent, that is exactly how he chose to make his entrance.

The 2000 race against Roger L. Green, a long-tenured state assemblyman, was more generational than ideological. It was also contentious, reflecting Mr. Jeffries’s eagerness to propel himself into Brooklyn’s fractious political scene and his early fund-raising skills.

Hustling around subway stops and parks, he cast his opponent as ineffective and calcified. After he made a comment during a televised debate highlighting Mr. Green’s Muslim faith, the incumbent accused him of stoking religious tension and stormed out.

Mr. Green won, but Mr. Jeffries made an impression. Soon, new legislative lines cut Mr. Jeffries out of the district, a political “move that was gangster,” he said in a 2010 documentary about gerrymandering.

A 2002 rematch was even uglier, with Mr. Jeffries accused of sending misleading mailers. He lost again.

But a broader changing of the guard was underway. Across central Brooklyn, a new generation of young Black political leaders with advanced degrees was demanding the baton of power from officials who, in many cases, had been the first African Americans to hold office. Among the newcomers were Letitia James, who is now New York’s attorney general, and Eric Adams, now the mayor.

In 2006, Mr. Jeffries finally found a path to join them when Mr. Green abandoned the seat. Once an outsider, Mr. Jeffries quickly became close with the borough’s Democratic machine and, some believed, too friendly to the interests of developers and charter schools often backed by the city’s wealthy.

When Forest City Ratner proposed a multibillion-dollar redevelopment in Mr. Jeffries’s backyard — including an arena that is now home to the Brooklyn Nets — some of his neighbors were flummoxed by his position. Ms. James forcefully opposed the project, known as Atlantic Yards; Mr. Green supported it. Mr. Jeffries straddled the divide, saying he was against the use of eminent domain to seize land for the development and some design decisions, but not the project as a whole.

“I spent six hours at two meetings with him,” Daniel Goldstein, an opponent of the project, told The New York Times in 2006. “After six hours, it was unclear to us where he stood.”

Allies saw early signs of something else, though — an ability to balance competing and sometimes outright hostile interests to forge alliances. Supporters and local newspapers began using a moniker to liken him to another young Black politician born on the same day: the “Barack of Brooklyn.” 

Mastering the inside game

In Albany, Mr. Jeffries played a deft inside game. He courted party leaders but was most closely identified with a generation of downstate Black and Latino lawmakers who pushed the Legislature to correct what they saw as grievous inequities in the criminal justice system.

He also continued to work in private practice, taking a lucrative part-time position at a personal injury law firm that ultimately earned him more than $1.6 million in contingency fees.

In a burst of activity in 2009 and 2010, the lawmakers helped repeal the state’s strict 1970s-era drug laws; ended the practice of counting inmates as “residents” of rural counties to increase those counties’ political clout; and barred the Police Department from maintaining an electronic database including personal information of more than a million people it had stopped, frisked and questioned but never charged.

The last of the three “catapulted him into a position as a leader and spokesperson for racial equality and fair policing,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which worked closely on the bill. It also foretold his intense focus on criminal justice policy in Congress, where he helped write a Trump-era overhaul of federal sentencing and prison laws.

Teaming up with Mr. Adams, then a state senator, Mr. Jeffries argued that the database infringed on the civil liberties of the mostly Black and brown men it cataloged. But he used the issue to force a larger debate on stop and frisk, a program that had broad political support but that Mr. Jeffries believed had ballooned out of control — putting him at odds with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

“That was probably the most consequential moment for me legislatively — to show that I could show up and not just speak about the problem, but solve the problem,” Mr. Jeffries said.

In 2011, he decided to once again take on a political elder, this time for a seat in Congress. Edolphus Towns was a powerful 30-year incumbent, but he was aging and increasingly out of step.

This time there would be no heavyweight race. Mr. Towns bowed out before the primary, reinforcing lessons Mr. Jeffries had learned years earlier. In the primary, he defeated Charles Barron, a New York City councilman and former Black Panther who has argued for years that Mr. Jeffries is too averse to butting heads with the powerful.

“He plays it safe,” he said.

Mr. Jeffries’s profile rose after he arrived in Washington. Black leaders tried to draft him to run for mayor; others tried for state attorney general. But he had little trouble saying no.

“Lawmaking,” Mr. Jeffries said in the interview, “was always more interesting to me.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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