Hakeem Jeffries made history as the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress, addressing the 118th Congress for the first time in the early hours of Saturday morning.
“As John Lewis would sometimes remind us on this floor, we may have come over on different ships but we’re all in the same boat now,” Jeffries said, referencing the late civil rights legend and longtime congressman.
“We are White. We are Black. We are Latino. We are Asian. We are Native American. We are Christian. We are Jewish. We are Muslim. We are Hindu. We are religious. We are secular. We are gay. We are straight. We are young. We are older. We are women. We are men. We are citizens. We are dreamers,” he continued. “Out of many we are one. That’s what makes America a great country. And no matter what kind of haters are trying to divide us, we’re not going to let anyone take that away from us. Not now. Not ever.”
“This is the United States of America, a land of opportunity. The fact that I’m able to stand up here today is another data point in that narrative.”
The New York Democrat now leads the minority party in the US House of Representatives, succeeding Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who served as speaker in the prior session of Congress when Democrats held the majority. In addition to being the first Black lawmaker to attain such a position, he is also the first person elected to lead House Democrats to be born after the end of World War II.
Jeffries’ position was made official after the conclusion of a prolonged floor fight for House speaker. California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy ultimately secured the powerful position leading the GOP majority in the chamber following days of painstaking negotiations and failed votes.
Jeffries told the Congress that he also wanted to “make clear” that Democrats “will never compromise (their) principles.”
“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.”
For Democrats, Saturday officially marked the end of an era – and the start of a new one – as Jeffries, at 52, takes up his new position after Pelosi and top-ranking Democrats Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn announced they would be stepping down from their leadership positions. Clyburn is expected to become assistant leader in the new Congress.
Jeffries addressed Pelosi in his remarks early Saturday, thanking the California Democrat “for all that (she has) done.”
“It’s an honor to stand on your broad shoulders,” he said, “as well – as well as the shoulders of the great Steny Hoyer and the great Jim Clyburn, two consequential leaders in their own right.”
House Democrats selected Jeffries to helm their party during a closed-door election in November. He ran unopposed, and Democrats have united around him following Pelosi’s exit from leadership after two decades helming the party. Jeffries will likely be at the forefront of the House Democratic minority for the next two years with Republicans holding a slim majority in the chamber.
The 118th Congress first convened on Tuesday with the House failing to elect a new speaker that day. While Republican quarrels prevented the election of a new speaker for days, ultimately going to 15 rounds of voting, Democrats displayed unwavering support for Jeffries, who consistently earned 212 votes from his party as Republicans split votes across multiple lawmakers.
At one point in the early rounds of balloting, Democrats in the chamber chanted “Hakeem, Hakeem,” while standing and clapping for their soon-to-be leader. Jeffries’ lead at the time over McCarthy represented a win for Democrats on that first day with the GOP in the majority as the speakership election went to multiple rounds of balloting.
“We are looking for a willing partner to solve problems for the American people, not save the Republicans from their dysfunction,” Jeffries told reporters Tuesday, saying that he was not willing at that point to help Republicans elect a speaker.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Jeffries studied political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton and received a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University. He also attended law school at New York University School of Law where he was on the law review.
He started his career in politics after being elected to the New York State Assembly in 2006. In 2012, he was elected to New York’s 8th congressional district, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
During his time in Congress, Jeffries has pushed for policing reform, including a national ban on chokeholds following the death of Eric Garner, a Black man who died in 2014 after being held in the restraining move. He was also instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act and co-sponsored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House but failed in the Senate.
In 2019, he became chairman of the Democratic caucus, making him the youngest member serving in leadership. Jeffries was also part of a select group of lawmakers who were impeachment managers during the Senate trial of then-President Donald Trump.
Jeffries, who was first elected in 2012, embarks on his sixth term with ambitions to restore the enhanced child tax credit, get his party back to the majority in 2024, call out what he describes as Republican extremism and rebuild economic access.
“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 told CNN last month.
Jeffries ascending to become one of the highest-ranking Black politicians ever in America comes as a record number of Black people assume their role in Congress. They will navigate the Capitol, making decisions for their constituents, in a building where the foundation was laid by slaves.
This headline and story have been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Megan Trimble, Chandelis Duster, Daniella Diaz and Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.