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Feb 6: Brooklyn Black History Maker, Hakeem Jeffries

Hakeem Jeffries was elected unopposed as House Democratic Leader for the 118th Congress in November 2022, becoming the first African American to lead a party caucus in either chamber of Congress.
Hakeem Jeffries. Photo: Miranda Levingston for BK Reader.

Hakeem Sekou Jeffries, from Crown Heights, is the first African American to lead a party caucus in either chamber of Congress. Jeffries was elected unopposed as House Democratic Leader for the 118th Congress in November 2022, with 212 votes in his favor. 

But, before that, he was a kid growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. Jeffries was born on August 4, 1970, at Brooklyn Hospital Center to parents Laneda and Marland Jeffries, a social worker and counselor, respectively, who raised him in Crown Heights. 

Jeffries graduated from Midwood High School and began studying political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton.  After college, he earned a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University and attended law school at New York University where he was on the law review.

After graduating law school, he worked as a clerk for a federal district judge and as an attorney at a white-shoe firm, then at Viacom and finally at CBS.

He is married to Kennisandra Arciniegas, with whom he has two children. 

Hakeem Jeffries in Office

He started his political career after joining the New York State Assembly in 2006 as the Democratic representative of the 57th district, which includes Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and parts of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. 

In 2012, he was elected to New York’s 8th congressional district, which includes parts of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Canarsie, East New York, Ocean Hill, Spring Creek, East Flatbush, Bergen Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Howard Beach, Marine Park, Mill Basin, Sea Gate, Clinton Hill, Flatlands, Fort Greene, Ozone Park, Brighton Beach, and Coney Island.

In 2019, he became chairman of the Democratic caucus, making history as the youngest member in leadership. Jeffries was also an impeachment manager during the Senate trial of then-President Donald Trump.

In 2022, when Nancy Pelosi announced she was stepping down from her post, Democrats united around Jeffries as the new Speaker. Jeffries will likely be the minority leader for the next two years and has said he hopes to flip the House blue in 2024. Right now, Republicans have a slim majority in the chamber.

“I just look forward to the opportunity to do the most good for the greatest number of people possible for as long as I have the opportunity to do so and can operate at the highest level,” he said of his new role to CNN.

In addition to his new duties as the most powerful Democrat in Congress, he still represents Congressional District 8 in Brooklyn. At his “State of the District” event in late January 2023, he promised to always look out for his hometown.

"Brooklyn, I've got your back!"Jeffries said

The Causes He Cares About

The legislative issues Jeffries has championed during his career include affordable housing, criminal justice reform and the climate. He has also worked to provide financial support for veterans, the elderly and parents through progressive legislation. 

He has also pushed for police reform — including the national ban on chokeholds following the death of Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed in a chokehold by police. Jeffries also co-sponsored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House but failed in the Senate.

"Before people were even engaged in the conversation on criminal justice reform, Hakeem Jeffries had already put it forward," said Mayor Eric Adams at Jeffries’ swearing-in ceremony in Brooklyn.

The First Step Act, a bipartisan effort from Jeffries and a conservative Republican from rural Georgia, is reducing recidivism and the size of the federal prison population while also creating mechanisms to maintain public safety.

The EQUAL Act of 2021, a bipartisan bill for which Jeffries is a lead sponsor, would end the racial disparity between the sentencing of powder cocaine versus crack cocaine. It has passed in the House and awaits the Senate. 

The 2022 climate bill, The Inflation Reduction Act, will make a huge investment in domestic energy production while promoting clean energy and aims to reduce carbon admissions by 40% in 2030. It also lowers prescription drug costs for seniors and includes some tax reform. 

His Human Trafficking Prevention Act, which was signed into law, will require the human trafficking victim hotline to be posted in all federal buildings and the restrooms of all airports, airplanes, buses, bus stations, trains and train stations. 

His bills are countless, but he summed up his motivations in his speech to congress at his swearing-in as Minority Speaker: 

“House Democrats,” he said, “will always put American values over autocracy, benevolence over bigotry, the Constitution over the cult, democracy over demagogues, economic opportunity over extremism, freedom over facism, governing over gaslighting, hopefulness over hatred, inclusion over isolation, justice over judicial overreach, knowledge over kangaroo courts, liberty over limitation, maturity over Mar-a-Lago, normalcy over negativity ... 

"Opportunity over obstruction, people over politics, quality of life issues over QAnon, reason over racism, substance over slander, triumph over tyranny, understanding over ugliness, voting rights over voter suppression, working families over the well-connected, xenial over xenophobia, ‘Yes, we can’ over ‘You can do it' and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation.”

To read more bills that Jeffries has sponsored, click here


February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites— past and present— who have contributed to America's fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.