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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) speaks to members of the media after a session of House Democrats' organizational meeting to elect leadership at the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium November 28, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Progressives Outraged as House Democrats Elect 'Big Money' Centrist Hakeem Jeffries Over Barbara Lee for Caucus Chair

"What is there to say anymore? The Democratic Party establishment needs to be primaried into oblivion."

Jake Johnson

In a bid to move the party's leadership in a more bold direction, progressive groups and activists mobilized urgently in recent weeks to pressure House Democrats to elect Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) as the party's next Caucus Chair.

But, ultimately, their campaign was not enough to overcome the party establishment's support for the more "moderate" Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who was elected on Wednesday by a vote of 123-113.

"Jeffries is a big money Democrat and a member in good standing of Andrew Cuomo's New York machine. There is no way to spin his victory over Barbara Lee as a sign the party is moving in a progressive direction."
—Zach Carter, Huffington Post

Jeffries' victory over Lee was met with dismay by progressives, who viewed the anti-war congresswoman's defeat at the hands of her House Democratic colleagues as yet another sign that the party badly needs a new direction.

"What is there to say anymore? The Democratic Party establishment needs to be primaried into oblivion," Margaret McLaughlin, a member of the Metro D.C. branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), wrote on Twitter.

While Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), critics and reporters argued that his overwhelming reliance on big money donors and his positions on major issues raise serious questions about his commitment to the kinds of bold policies that swept "the most progressive freshman class" in U.S. history into office in the November midterms and gave Democrats control of the House.

"Jeffries is a big money Democrat and a member in good standing of [Gov.] Andrew Cuomo's New York machine," noted Huffington Post reporter Zach Carter. "There is no way to spin his victory over Barbara Lee as a sign the party is moving in a progressive direction."

As The Economist noted in a profile of the New York congressman published in September, "Jeffries is not a member of the moderate New Democrats faction, but he often sounds as if he should be."

"Our caucus today denied Barbara Lee the honor she deserved of being Chair. But the petty politics of members of Congress will never be able to deny her her place in history. She towers above those who rejected her."
—Rep. Ro Khanna
"He is a fan of charter schools and fiscal rectitude," The Economist reported. "Though he supports the principle of universal healthcare 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."

Additionally, critics recalled after he won Wednesday's election that Jeffries issued a fawning statement in support of Israel as the nation carried out Operation Protective Edge, the vicious 2014 attack on the occupied Gaza Strip that left thousands of Palestinians dead.

"When you live in a tough neighborhood Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength," Jeffries declared. "You know why? Because the only thing that neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength."

Aida Chavez, a reporter for The Intercept, also called attention to Jeffries' derisive 2016 comments about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who he smeared as a "gun-loving socialist with zero foreign policy experience."

With his victory over Lee, Jeffries will take the number five House Democratic leadership spot in the next Congress, replacing Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.)—who was ousted in June by democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Responding to the New York Times' narrative that Jeffries' win represents a victory for a "new" and younger generation of House Democrats, Waleed Shahid—communications director for Justice Democrats—argued that focusing on the age gap between Lee and Jeffries obscures their very real ideological contrasts.

"'New generation' can't simply mean diversifying the ruling class. We need diverse representation and progressive politics," Shahid concluded. "There were clear differences between Lee and Jeffries: message, policy priorities, and records of taking on the one percent and establishment in their own party."

Responding to Lee's loss on Twitter, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) wrote: "Our caucus today denied Barbara Lee the honor she deserved of being Chair. But the petty politics of members of Congress will never be able to deny her her place in history. She towers above those who rejected her."


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