The activist left suffered a major blow on Wednesday when California Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive antiwar icon, lost her bid to lead the House Democratic Caucus.
Notwithstanding Lee’s loss, though, the Congressional Progressive Caucus significantly increased its representation in Democratic leadership.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 48, who defeated Lee, 72, by 10 votes, is, like Lee, an African-American member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“The fact that Lee, the most liberal person in the caucus, lost the contest for caucus chair by 10 votes should say a lot,” said a progressive House aide who was unauthorized to speak on the record. “And she lost to someone who is in the top one-third most progressive members in terms of his voting record.”
On a number of criteria, Jeffries is simply more moderate than Lee. He is an outspoken proponent of charter schools, which are anathema to both teachers unions and the grassroots left. He delivered a hawkish speech at a New York City rally in solidarity with Israel during its widely-criticized invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014. And during the 2016 presidential primary, he led the charge of Hillary Clinton allies who attacked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for being “missing in action” on issues relevant to the African-American community.
Jeffries’ more cautious brand of liberal politics is matched by a greater dependence on wealthy donors. In the last election cycle, less than 1.4 percent of the contributions Jeffries raised were in increments of less than $200, compared with over 21 percent of Barbara Lee’s campaign haul.
At the local level, Jeffries is a strident ally of centrist New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and a onetime critic of progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He even reportedly considered challenging de Blasio for re-election in 2017.
“This really seems like a moderate choice,” said New York City-based progressive strategist who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “He has been aligned with Gov. Cuomo and not with the more progressive parts of the New York Democratic Party.”
By contrast, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, Jeffries’ predecessor as caucus chairman, who lost his primary race due in part to his perceived coziness with big donors, hailed Jeffries’ election.
“I am incredibly proud that a fellow New Yorker and my friend will help lead the Democratic Caucus,” Crowley said. “New York, and the country, are in good hands with Hakeem.”
Later on Wednesday, in a starker ideological battle, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, a CPC member, handily defeated California Rep. Pete Aguilar, a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, to fill the sixth-highest post of caucus vice chair.
In addition, on Thursday, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, another CPC member, defeated Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, a New Democrat, in the race for a new leadership post reserved for junior members of Congress.
Progressives likewise swept elections for seats on the newly expanded House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which oversees messaging on key policy priorities. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, an authority on antitrust policy, was re-elected to head the panel, while fellow CPC members Matt Cartwright (Pa.), Debbie Dingell (Mich.) and Ted Lieu (Calif.) won contests for supporting seats.
They replace a moderate member, Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), who previously co-chaired the committee with Cicilline. Bustos was elected to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the incoming Congress.
Thanks to those outcomes, the CPC now has made a net pickup of at least five spots in Democratic leadership. In the last Congress, CPC member Linda Sanchez (Calif.) served as caucus vice chair and Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline co-chaired the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. Cicilline was re-elected and will now serve as “chair” ― a superior role over the three
By contrast, consider the outcome of the Democratic leadership races the last time the Democrats flipped the House in 2006. Not a single CPC member won a seat, moderate Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) defeated outspoken Iraq War critic Jack Murtha, and the famously transactional centrist Rahm Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman, was elected caucus chair.
Still, Lee’s defeat is a stinging one for the left-leaning activists, organizations and women’s rights groups that flocked behind her candidacy.
Lee, a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is best known for casting the lone congressional vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Although radical at the time, her vote and famous speech accompanying it are now widely regarded as prophetic: The legislation, putatively meant to authorize the war in Afghanistan, has since become the legally dubious basis for military operations in over 20 countries.
When Crowley, the outgoing caucus chairman, lost his primary election to Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June, it set off a scramble for his seat in leadership. Soon Sanchez, who had previously bested Lee for the vice chair spot, made clear she would not run to replace Crowley.
Lee was the first to jump in and quickly became a favored contender when she announced her bid for the post, which helps determine what types of legislation come up for a floor vote.
She quickly picked up the backing of the new grassroots powerhouse Indivisible and liberal stalwarts like Democracy for America; civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (Ga.); Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.); activist Ady Barkan; and the women’s rights organizations NARAL Pro-Choice America and Feminist Majority.
For a progressive movement that still faces criticism for the relative racial homogeneity of its most committed partisans, Lee also added welcome diversity. She would have made history as the first black woman in the congressional leadership of either major party.
“Lee is not just a progressive. She’s one of us,” said Murshed Zaheed, a former congressional aide who now leads the progressive consulting firm Strategy and Hustle.
Lee’s loss has echoes of other progressive proxy battles since the 2016 presidential election in which the nascent left wing succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate, but not in installing its champions in sought-after positions of power.
For example, progressive Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison fell short in his Feb. 2017 bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee, but earned the title of deputy chairman and likely generated political momentum for the presidential nominating reforms that the central party body adopted in August.
Of course, there are also still arguments for downplaying the significance of Jeffries’ win for the left.
Jeffries is not a centrist in the mold of Hoyer, the once and future House majority leader. He is a co-sponsor of the Medicare for all legislation in the House and a passionate proponent of criminal justice reform.
And Jeffries, who worked as a corporate lawyer prior to his election to Congress in 2012, began his career in public life as an insurgent, unseating veteran state Assemblyman Roger Green in 2000 with a primary challenge from the left.
Evan Stavisky, a veteran New York Democratic strategist and friend of Jeffries,’ noted that Jeffries is not associated with Brooklyn Democratic machine leaders like borough President Eric Adams.
“Calling him some voice of the establishment is probably not accurate,” Stavisky said. “He’s certainly a progressive.”
“The moderates still have a lot of strength they’ve built up over the years.”
Others, like Lee herself, chalked up Jeffries’ appeal to his relative youth ― and the fact that he is male.
But that does not diminish the reality that Jeffries is more of a standard-issue Democrat than Lee. Whatever the reason for Lee’s defeat, it is a lost opportunity for progressive activists who proved incapable of launching one of their own into the fifth-highest House leadership post.
“The moderates still have a lot of strength they’ve built up over the years,” the New York City-based progressive strategist said.
“I don’t think it’s time to despair. It’s still early,” the strategist added. “It’s good for progressives to realize they need to know how the levers of power work in Washington.”
This story has been updated to reflect the results of leadership elections that took place on Thursday.