Hakeem Jeffries again challenges the left, on the eve of the primary

He thinks voters have rebuked DSA-aligned progressives at the ballot box after President Joe Biden was elected.

Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou has positioned herself as the most progressive candidate in the Aug. 23 primary.

Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou has positioned herself as the most progressive candidate in the Aug. 23 primary. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is seen as a leader among New York’s Democrats in Congress and a critic of the party’s left wing, seemed to purposefully leave out a name among the candidates running in the 10th Congressional District.

“There are multiple candidates who are highly qualified, in my view, to represent that district, many of whom I’ve worked with, including Carlina Rivera, Dan Goldman, Mondaire Jones and Jo Anne Simon,” Jeffries said in a roundtable interview with reporters in Downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday. “It’s still a very highly competitive race,” he continued, “And any of four or five candidates could conceivably win. And any of the candidates who are in the top tier, any of the candidates that I’ve mentioned who I’ve worked closely with who are in the top tier, are people I’d be happy to work with, should they be successful.”

Left unmentioned was Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, another member of that race’s top tier, and somebody who has positioned herself as the most progressive candidate in the Aug. 23 primary with her endorsements, her pledge against donations from real estate developers (with some exceptions) and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s right to engage in protest against the Israeli government. 

To be fair, Niou and Jeffries represent different boroughs, and their districts are miles apart. There’s no readily apparent example of the two working together on either political or government work. The Brooklyn representative simply may not know her like he knows the others. But Jeffries is a particularly careful speaker who answers questions slowly and deliberately. And he has never been one to hide his disdain for the party’s left wing, especially when it comes to electoral challenges to more moderate incumbents. 

Jeffries dug in again last week, when asked if he thought the progressive movement had hit a wall, electorally.

“Politically, the left did have some success in primarying Democratic incumbents in 2018, and 2020,” Jeffries conceded, no doubt in reference to candidates supported by the progressive PAC Justice Democrats, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated Joe Crowley, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who unseated Eliot Engel. “But a lot of their electoral momentum began to dissipate shortly after Biden was elected. … It’s a question that the Justice Democrats and others have to ask: Why are we losing race after race after race, running against Joe Biden and the Democratic Party? Perhaps the voters are sending us a message.”

Jeffries pointed to a couple examples of congressional primaries – Nina Turner’s back-to-back losses to Rep. Shontel Brown in Ohio, Rep. Henry Cuellar’s win over Jessica Cisneros in Texas and Rep. Danny Davis’ big win over Kina Collins in Illinois. That could be the case locally too. The Democratic Socialists of America backed five candidates who weren’t incumbents in the June Democratic primary, and only one of them succeeded – compared to 2020, when DSA went 5 for 5. But Jeffries may have overstated his case. Justice Democrats-backed Greg Casar and Summer Lee just won competitive primaries for open seats in Texas and Pennsylvania, respectively, and Sarahana Shrestha, who was endorsed by the DSA and the Working Families Party, defeated Assembly Member Kevin Cahill. 

A similar dynamic could now be at play in the 10th District, an open seat covering lower Manhattan and northwestern Brooklyn. Niou isn’t backed by the Justice Democrats or the DSA, but her coalition of supporters includes six DSA legislators, and she has the support of the WFP and other progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement. In the closing days, Niou’s campaign has tried to frame the crowded primary as a two-person race between her and Goldman. She’s the progressive insurgent woman of color, and he’s the white male moderate Democrat, self-funding with $4 million.

Jeffries is not formally endorsing in that race, but he has weighed in on a few of the August races. He’s strongly supporting Democrat Pat Ryan over Republican Marc Molinaro in the special election in the 19th Congressional District – though he’s tempering expectations, and thinks Ryan may have a better shot in the new 18th Congressional District, which he’s expected to contest in November. In New York City, he’s supporting Angel Vasquez over state Sen. Robert Jackson – following the lead of his ally Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who has prioritized that race himself. And he’s backing state Sen. Kevin Parker, who’s facing a vigorous challenge from DSA-backed David Alexis. “It will be interesting to see whether the virtue signalers can break through in that particular context in a majority-Black district,” Jeffries said, grinning with confidence.

But the representative’s endorsements aren’t as clear and consistent as those of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who seems eager to back anybody opposed by the progressive movement. Jeffries, after all, gave Maya Wiley his No. 1 ranked endorsement in the 2021 mayoral race, joining a progressive coalition that included Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman. And this year, Jeffries declined to endorse Conrad Tillard, who is running against DSA state Sen. Jabari Brisport in the heart of Jeffries’ district.

“I definitively have no disdain for progressive movement, being a progressive myself, and a longtime member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus from the moment I first arrived in Washington, D.C.,” Jeffries explained. “It’s important to understand there’s a distinction between the socialist machine and mainstream progressives, which some of the virtue signalers on Twitter don’t always focus on as a result of a seemingly myopic view of the political world.” 

Jeffries noted that Espaillat and Rep. Nydia Velázquez, both of whom endorsed Rivera in the 10th Congressional District, have been criticized online “because they are not supporting candidates that are part of the ideological purity test.” That’s not a legitimate frame, in Jeffries’ eyes. Representatives’ progressivism should instead be judged by their legislative record. (GovTrack ranked Jeffries the 90th most left-leaning member of Congress in 2020, out of 237 Democrats. Velázquez was 27th and Espaillat was 11th.) “There are some forces on the left that want to define progressive as ‘you bend the knee, and we tell you what to do, and if you fail to fall in line, you’re a machine Democrat or a corporate sellout.’ That’s a joke,” Jeffries said. “And what we’ve seen consistently in race after race after race, over the last two years, is that the voters aren’t buying it.”

Jeffries himself has a chance to prove that Tuesday. He’s facing a primary challenge from the left from Queen Johnson, a community organizer. Johnson hasn’t reported any fundraising and hasn’t been endorsed by even a single pillar of the city’s progressive movement, so Jeffries, a powerful incumbent, is expected to win in a landslide.

But his real race may come up after November. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously said this would be her last term leading the Democrats. But she and other leading party members like Jeffries – the fifth-ranking Democrat, as Democratic Caucus chair – have been tight-lipped on who could take over. Jeffries is a leading contender, but he’s got competition. And he’s not eager to talk. “I think all of us within leadership are appropriately and singularly focused on holding the House in a hypercompetitive midterm environment, because the stakes are so high, given how extreme Republicans have become in the aftermath of Trump’s rise,” he said. Taking their eyes off the effort to hold on to the majority would be “political malpractice.”

But have there even been private conversations about whether Pelosi will step down, and who would lobby their colleagues to replace her? “Silence until after November,” Jeffries said. “And there have been no conversations, and I think that’s appropriate, because everyone’s focused on doing the job that is in front of them at this moment. And it would be irresponsible for people to put their ambitions and aspirations that are personal in nature above the collective cause of getting big things done for everyday Americans and winning in November.”

Unsurprisingly, Jeffries expects that, come November, Democrats will be discussing who should be speaker of the House, not minority leader. 

“It’s going to be a hard-fought battle,” he said. “But I believe that we’re going to hold the House and pick up seats in the United States Senate.”