Commentary: Hakeem Jeffries’ socialist problem

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries can’t defeat the Democratic Socialists of America, and they can’t defeat him, leading to an uncomfortable stasis.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries speaks with fellow House Democrats outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 13, 2023.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries speaks with fellow House Democrats outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 13, 2023. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This column was originally published in Political Currents, Ross Barkan’s Substack newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

On Friday, there was a small item in Politico about state Sen. Jabari Brisport. Brisport, a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America who represents a district in central Brooklyn, could be a target for a primary next year after angering moderate Democrats over his pro-Palestinian, Israel-skeptical politics. Democratic operatives close to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader who represents a district that overlaps with Brisport’s, say he would be interested in backing such a primary. 

None of this is surprising. For DSA, Jeffries’ ascension in the House is a particular problem. Unlike Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who occasionally mocked the Squad but invested little political capital in actually weakening leftists, Jeffries has been a long-standing opponent of democratic socialism in New York. He has spoken openly about the need to defeat socialist politicians and endorsed candidates, in multiple primaries, against DSA contenders. He still harbors a grudge against DSA for ousting his protégé, Walter Mosley, in the Brooklyn Assembly seat he once held.

Brisport is likely of particular annoyance to Jeffries. A Black socialist who is a native of central Brooklyn, Brisport is, perhaps, one of the lawmakers most loyal to DSA in the United States. Outside critics of the organization don’t quite understand that there are differences in how various DSA-endorsed politicians actually work with it. Some, like Rep. Jamaal Bowman, are effectively no longer involved. Others, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, maintain a cordial relationship but never came through the actual ranks of DSA. When Ocasio-Cortez ran against former Rep. Joe Crowley, she was, at the outset, a recruit of Justice Democrats (then known as Brand New Congress), not DSA. Although DSA endorsed her later in the race, she had no prior involvement with the democratic socialists and has not always endorsed their candidates since she got to Congress. Brisport received her endorsement when he first ran for state Senate in 2020, but Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani – who had managed my own unsuccessful state Senate campaign two years prior – did not receive her endorsement in his Assembly race.

Brisport and Mamdani are what DSA rank-and-file refer to as “cadre” – politicians who were active members of the organization prior to their election and who are especially invested in its future. DSA’s goal, in New York and elsewhere, is to elect a large number of legislators who will vote as a bloc and work collectively on policy aims that the organization cares about. Unlike labor unions or the left-liberal Working Families Party, DSA does not care about endorsing an enormous slate of candidates and claiming victory when some of them win. They want more Brisports and Mamdanis in office. They want politicians who will care as much about the future of DSA as their own political careers.

Jeffries, a very astute tactician, undoubtedly senses this. If he could remove Brisport tomorrow and replace him with a conventional Democrat, he would. He is probably feeling confident after another protégé, Chris Banks, finally unseated the far-left (though not DSA-endorsed) Charles Barron in a City Council election. If Barron, a Black Panther who presided over a miniature political dynasty in East New York, can fall, why not Brisport, a 36-year-old former public school teacher and Yale School of Drama graduate?

Unfortunately for Jeffries, Brisport, for a variety of reasons, will be much harder to beat.

There is the fact that DSA has a strong base in central Brooklyn among both white and Black members of the professional class. Brisport himself is an enthusiastic campaigner and an effective fundraiser. And like the rest of DSA, he has plenty of experience battling the Democratic establishment. Last year, Mayor Eric Adams endorsed a primary challenger against him, and he still managed to win re-election with a stunning 70% of the vote. In 2020, his first state Senate campaign, he throttled sitting Assembly Member Tremaine Wright by more than 20 points, winning an open contest for the seat.

Various DSA members, over the last few years, have fantasized about launching a primary against Jeffries. But winning that election would be even more of a challenge for them than Jeffries unseating Brisport. This is why DSA, which does not take on unwinnable campaigns, is unlikely to ever endorse a primary against Jeffries. Unlike Crowley, Jeffries is a known commodity in his district, ever-present and popular. As the leader of the House Democrats, he can raise as much money as he would possibly ever need. Leftists and socialists would also struggle to make inroads in his district, which was redrawn just last year. In addition to the moderate Black voters in eastern Brooklyn that he’s always represented, Jeffries now has a large chunk of white conservatives at the southern end of his district. Russians, Orthodox Jews and older white ethnics would choose Jeffries over a primary challenger every time. As long as he’s in the House, he’ll never lose an election.

This creates, for each side, a sort of uncomfortable stasis. Neither Jeffries nor Brisport can be dislodged. DSA might struggle to grow, but it won’t shrink. Moderates like Jeffries won’t vanish from Democratic politics, either. If anything, they’re enjoying a small resurgence, with various progressive organizations hurting for dollars. Still, leftists made too many gains in the 2010s to fall back into total irrelevancy. In New York, there are now eight DSA-endorsed Democrats in the state legislature. Despite all the political blowback over Israel and Gaza, that number might grow after the 2024 elections. The DSA incumbents are largely safe. And pickup opportunities are plausible in Queens and Brooklyn, if DSA can ever figure out how to unseat Assembly Member Erik Dilan in Bushwick. The future is not necessarily bright for democratic socialism, but it’s not dim either. Jeffries will have to learn to coexist with the socialists in his midst.