It took Hakeem Jeffries three tries just to win one of 150 seats in the New York Assembly. Now he is in Congress, chair of the House Democratic caucus, a rising star in the party and a frequent guest on MSNBC. He was the lead Democratic sponsor of the bipartisan criminal justice reform signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018.
His 14th year in elected office has been the most intense. In January, Jeffries was named one of seven House impeachment managers for Trump’s trial. Then came Covid and George Floyd’s death — all in the context of Trump seeking re-election. A lifelong Brooklynite, Jeffries came of age as Central Brooklyn was ravaged by drugs; today he finds it coping with gentrification.
The graduate of Binghamton University and NYU School of Law, who also holds a master’s degree from Georgetown, cut his teeth battling the Democratic establishment. Now he helps lead it against the right and far-left wings.
Jeffries has been outspoken about racism but was not impressed when Mayor Bill de Blasio this month had “Black Lives Matter” painted in front of Trump Tower: “Black-owned businesses have gotten 1 percent of municipal contracts during this pandemic,” Jeffries tweeted. “Memo to City Hall. Put down the paintbrushes. Do something meaningful about economic empowerment.”
Jeffries spoke with The Real Deal this month on topics ranging from Trump’s real estate donors to what he tells his sons about being stopped by police — something he has experienced repeatedly throughout his 49 years.
Where did you grow up? I was born in Brooklyn Hospital and raised in a working-class neighborhood in Crown Heights by two parents who were both public employees. My mom was a caseworker [for the city], and my dad was a substance-abuse social worker with the state. The Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant was an important part of our life. My younger brother and I both graduated from Midwood High School and came of age in the midst of a very difficult time in New York City, as our neighborhoods were being ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic.
How did those years shape your political philosophy? The crack epidemic made it painfully obvious that there were real challenges in Black and brown communities, from a social justice and economic perspective, that we needed to overcome. Many of the people that I grew up with went on to raise families themselves and live productive lives. Others got caught up in the dynamics of the drug trade, and their lives turned out very differently.
How important are the next four months? The stakes are incredibly high. The differences couldn’t be any clearer, in terms of our vision and perspective for what kind of America we should have moving forward. And that was before the pandemic and the death of George Floyd. In the context of these two extraordinary, earth-shattering events, this election in November will help define, in many ways, the heart and soul of what America is to become.
In response to the pandemic, Congress has injected trillions of dollars into the economy, unlike in 2009, when the stimulus was less than $900 million. What changed? In 2009, Republicans had zero interest in helping then-President Barack Obama respond to the crisis in a transformational fashion. In fact, they made it clear that their pathway back to power was not simply to say “no” to President Obama but to say “hell, no” on any legislative initiative he sought to accomplish on behalf of the American people. Our response [to Covid] as Democrats was that we were going to work to find common ground with Senate Republicans and the Trump administration because the facts required Congress to step up in a bipartisan way and do something meaningful.
There is talk about restoring the deduction for state and local taxes. Would that be fair, or would that mostly benefit the well-off? In 2017, the GOP tax scam allocated 83% of the tax benefits to the wealthiest 1%, and to do that, jammed up places like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and California — which happened to be states that President Trump lost — by stripping away the state and local tax deduction in a reckless, unjustified fashion. In my view, restoring the state and local tax deduction is the right thing to do.
What would you say to the real estate interests who donate money to Donald Trump? It seems to me that it is in everyone’s interest to move this country in a different direction, including those members of the real estate community who from time to time may see their legislative interests aligned with President Trump. But at the end of the day, the collective good of this country depends on electing someone who’s going to bring us together as a nation as opposed to continuing to tear us apart. Division is bad for everyone.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s an emerging left — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialists of America. Do they worry you the way they worry the real estate industry? I understand why so many people are upset, discouraged, alarmed, fearful, dismayed or angry about the state of affairs in America. And that was before the pandemic and the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It’s not surprising that you have very sharp voices that have emerged, on the left and on the right, to articulate what we should do in America.
Redlining was outlawed in 1968. But segregation and housing discrimination persist. How do you account for that? Systemic racism remains in the soil of America, and it has been with us for 401 years. It takes the form of housing discrimination, economic inequality and, of course, wrongdoing in criminal justice. Our view is that this moment demands transformational change in the manner in which the police and communities interact with each other, that brings about accountability and a guardian mentality in policing, as opposed to a warrior mentality.
At the same time, we can’t stop at justice in policing. If we are going to continue our long and necessary march toward a more perfect union, we have to deal with systemic inequality in core areas of the American dream, which include housing, education, and jobs. Because African-Americans, in many instances, have been artificially excluded from certain markets, those communities have been hurt, generation after generation after generation. It’s time for that to change.
Real estate is not a diverse industry. Why do you think that is? We have to look at diversifying our economy across the board. And the real estate industry has an important role to play, because if we’re going to turn things around in America, we have to do so through economic empowerment and create a robust pathway for African Americans to meaningfully experience the middle-class dream. We cannot do that if certain industries are closed off to African American entrepreneurs and businesspeople. We need a total reset — in terms of taking advantage of the talent that does exist in every single community — to be able to live out their full potential.
How have your experiences shaped your view of the New York real estate market? When I first moved into our first home, a co-op building on a block in Prospect Heights, in 1999, a majority of the residents were Black. At this point, there’s probably less than five Black families in a building that has about 100 or so families living in it.
We should embrace the diversity that has always been a part of what New York City, in totality, represents. But we have to do a better job of dealing with the intensity of the gentrification because longtime New Yorkers are at risk of being pushed out of the only neighborhoods they have ever called home. At some point, it seems to me that the real estate community is going to have to say to themselves: Is there collateral damage being done as these traditional Black and Latino communities are being overrun?
A Yale professor recently said, “We are engaging in the periodic ritual of being surprised by the deadly force of racism, when it has been with us all along.” Reform movements do seem to rise up, then lose momentum. Is this one different? In the midst of this deadly pandemic, it was clear that Black and Latino communities were being hit particularly hard because they were under-resourced. On top of that, you had the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, followed by the killing of Breonna Taylor, followed by a Harvard-educated bird watcher in Central Park having his race weaponized against him, and then the death of George Floyd, where he narrated his final minutes on Earth for eight minutes and 46 seconds as the life was literally being strangled out of him.
That all unfolding before the American people, as a captive audience, because we were home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is therefore my hope that the American people, as some polling has shown, have really locked in on the notion of systemic racism in a way that we haven’t seen since the 1960s, and that hopefully, similar to the 1960s, it will lead to some transformational change.
Have you ever personally felt profiled by the police? I’ve been stopped by the police in high school and in college. I have been stopped by the police as a law student and as a lawyer. I have been stopped by the police as a state legislator and as a member of Congress. It happens to every Black or brown person in America at some point in their life, almost without exception. And I, of course, have been compelled to have “the talk” with my two teenage sons about what to do when stopped by the police, because any encounter can turn deadly. Not because of any criminal conduct that they may be engaged in, but because of the color of their skin.
How did you first hear about George Floyd? My younger son showed me the video and said, simply, “It’s happened again, Dad. What are you going to do about it?” I could see the pain on his face and hear it in his voice. Shortly thereafter, he decided, like his older brother, that he was going to join one of the protests. At that point, I had to have the talk with him again, particularly given the volatile nature of what was happening in the streets of New York City.
What do you say? Make sure you have your ID. If you get stopped by the police without identification, they can use it as a reason to detain you. Second, if you are stopped by the police without justification, and they are behaving in a rude, disrespectful, or possibly abusive fashion, you just have to absorb it. Because if you react in any way that could be interpreted as having an attitude or being hostile, it could result in them getting physical and taking your life. So you have to suppress your humanity in that situation.
That must be a humiliating experience, though. I wouldn’t say it’s humiliating. It’s survival. And it is the reason why so many people are saying, “Enough.” Because I don’t want my sons to have that same conversation with their children when they get older.
Was it always your goal to get into politics? Well, not necessarily. In 1992, I recall returning home during my final semester at Binghamton, turning on the television and seeing Los Angeles in flames. The four white officers who were caught on camera brutally beating Rodney King had been acquitted by an [almost] all-white jury in Simi Valley. As someone growing up in Brooklyn, police violence and brutality was something that I was very aware of occurring in Black and brown communities. The Rodney King beating was the first time I could recall the police brutality being caught on tape. And so I understood why people were so outraged, that even when there was actual footage of the brutality … it still didn’t matter.
What was your big break? While I was practicing law at Paul, Weiss, I decided to run against a 20-year incumbent, Roger Green. We didn’t win, but we got more than 40 percent of the vote and shocked the establishment. Two years later, I ran again, but the seat was redrawn and eliminated several of the election districts where I had done the best, and also happened to cut out the block where I lived, which to this day is a moment of great dispute as to whether it was intentional. But we’ll let bygones be bygones.
The opportunity presented itself to go in-house [as an attorney] at Viacom and CBS, which I did. But then in 2006, the Assembly seat became vacant when Green decided to run for Congress. I prevailed, became a member of the state Legislature and served there for six years. That was the start of my public service journey.
My final question is going to be the toughest. I have seen you and your son J.J. play basketball. When did he become better than you? It’s an unfortunate reality that all of us as parents have to confront. At a certain point, your children do become better than you. But it is a moment of pride. It probably happened between his junior and senior year of high school. His intellectual basketball acumen caught up to his natural athletic ability, and at that point, it was game over for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.