-by Anonymous Member of Congress
Hakeem Jeffries wants to be Speaker of the House. He’s 30 years younger than the rest of the House leadership, so that’s probably an achievable goal.
Jeffries will lead a bitterly divided House Democratic Caucus and Democratic Party that he helped divide. Jeffries wants no truce between the factions of the Democratic Party, the reform against the establishment wings, the grassroots against the money.
Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is open to any Democrat in Congress who sees some political benefit from the label "progressive." The truth is that Jeffries is a belligerent participant in corporate America’s effort to purge the Democratic Party of its progressive wing.
In the past, congressional leaders have come from one faction or another, but try to build coalitions across factional fines to the extent possible. The old-school advice is that politicians should call their most trusted, reliable allies "my good friend," and call their bitterest enemies "my good friend." There is nothing conciliatory about Jeffries. He will be a Speaker from the corporate wing with no use for grassroots progressives.
Jeffries is a new guard African-American member of Congress. The prototypic old guard member is 83-year-old Maxine Waters, now the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee. Waters first joined the Committee to support urban housing programs that were important to her majority-Black Los Angeles district. She can be bombastic in public and even more bombastic in private, with bank lobbyists often on the receiving end.
"She is a wacko," an unnamed bank lobbyist told the New York Observer. "She is very flamboyant, very old school. She is not one of these younger, sophisticated members of Congress. She has no grasp of the technical side of finance. She was elected during a different time in history, and she hasn’t read a book since then."
In the lingo of lobbyists, members are "sophisticated" if they vote to the lobbyist’s liking. Sophisticated members supported deregulation of the financial sector in the years before the financial crisis. Waters’ skepticism of financial "innovation" then and since marked her as unsophisticated and unserious in the eyes of big bank lobbyists.
Jeffries is the kind of sophisticated younger member that lobbyists prefer.
When the Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971, it was called the "conscience of Congress." The formative experience of many members was the Civil Rights Movement. They knew who in the white community was on their side in the Movement, and it wasn’t corporate America.
Jeffries wasn’t born when the CBC was founded. His formative experience was very different. He was a lawyer at an establishment corporate law firm and won election to the New York legislature as the candidate of Andrew Cuomo’s machine. He did not make trouble for the Cuomo administration in Albany. He slid into a congressional seat in Brooklyn and Queens when the incumbent retired rather than face a well-funded primary from Jeffries. With contributions from Wall Street bankers, corporate lawyers, charter school supporters, and hedge fund managers, Jeffries easily won the seat. He was called the “Barack Obama of Brooklyn” in the campaign.
His support from large donors continued. In 2018, 1.3 percent of Jeffries’s campaign money came from small-dollar contributions.
Jeffries is an uncritical supporter of Israel. He condemned the Obama administration for abstaining on, rather than vetoing, a U.N. Security Council resolution that declared Israel’s continued settlement in Palestinian territory a violation of international law. The vote was otherwise 14-0.
After an Israeli military offense in Gaza in 2014 drew international criticism, Jeffries said "When you live in a tough neighborhood Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength…The only thing that neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood in strength."
A Clinton supporter in 2016, Jeffries called Bernie Sanders "a gun-loving socialist with zero foreign policy experience" who provided "aid and comfort" to Trump. When Sanders said that he would be better for race relations than Clinton because "what we will do is say, instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, we’re going to create millions of jobs for low-income kids," Jeffries responded it was "a bit presumptuous…to conclude that Bernie Sanders in the twilight of his career was going to be able to be the great healer in race relations."
Jeffries was immediately seen as a rising star because, as Joe Biden would say, he’s an “African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean that’s storybook, man.” Jeffries was a corporate lawyer, and looked the part.
Jeffries’ ascent into the Democratic House leadership was quick and unexpected, however.
Joe Crowley was the youngest member of the House Democratic leadership and the presumptive next Speaker. Crowley is a gregarious corporate Democrat who represented a district that adjoined Jeffries’. In 2018, Crowley lost the Democratic primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a stunning upset. Barbara Lee, a long-time House member from Oakland, and perhaps the most unfailingly progressive member of the House, quickly announced for the open spot in the leadership and began to call Democratic members to ask for support. Lee had held top leadership positions in the CBC and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Because of the internal politics of the House Democratic Caucus, any challenge to Lee needed to come from within the CBC and the CPC, at least in name. Jeffries fit the bill, and had Crowley’s quiet support. Some members felt aggrieved that the popular Crowley had lost to a primary challenge from the left, which business lobbyists had assured them would never happen to a Democratic incumbent. Jeffries’ supporters portrayed Lee as an ally of AOC, although Lee did not know that Crowley had a primary until his unexpected loss. Jeffries won narrowly.
Progressive groups and activists did not see the contest as a happy choice between two solid progressives. They mobilized to urge Democrats in the House to support Lee.
"What else is there to say anymore? The Democratic Party establishment needs to be primaried into oblivion," one DSA activist wrote on Twitter after the vote.
The lesson that Jeffries drew from his narrow and divisive victory was not that he needed to make peace with progressive members, but that there needed to be fewer of them, and certainly no more of them.
When President Biden appointed Marcia Fudge, a CBC member from Cleveland, Secretary of HUD, the early favorite to fill Fudge’s seat was Nina Turner. Turner was a former Cleveland City Council member and state Senator. She supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and became president of Our Revolution, a political organization that grew out of the Sanders campaign. Turner was national co-chair of Sanders’ campaign in 2020.
Turner had national support from the Sanders wing and ran a well-funded campaign, but after millions of dollars in spending by outside groups that attacked Turner, she lost to a relatively low-profile county commissioner and party official with establishment support, Shontel Brown.
The corporate wing of the Democratic Party was triumphant, including Jeffries.
"The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter," Jeffries said, "when the majority of the electorate constitute mainstream Democrats at the polls."
"In the post-Trump era, the anti-establishment line of attack is lame-- when President Biden and Democratic legislators are delivering millions of good-paying jobs, the fastest-growing economy in 40 years and a massive child tax cut," Jeffries said.
Recent polling shows less enthusiasm for the Democratic establishment, even among Democrats.
Jeffries has been fiercest in his support of CBC members friendly to corporate interests in majority Black districts. Critics argue that the CBC still claims the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement, but no longer deserves it. The claim to moral authority, deserved or not, has value in Washington. "We go straight to the CBC because they’re open minded," a bank lobbyist euphemistically said to reporters Ryan Grim and Zach Carter. "And the professional left is scared of them," the lobbyist said. 'Every white liberal-- media, politician, advocacy group-- knows better than fucking with a CBC member." The lobbyist worked to repeal bits and pieces of the reforms enacted after the financial crisis with the support of "open minded" and "sophisticated" CBC members on the House Financial Services Committee.
The endorsement of the CBC PAC is supposedly based on the best interests of the African-American community generally, but the endorsement is dominated by African-American lobbyists, whose clients are no different from their white colleagues’. Funding for the PAC is from telecoms, big banks, payday lenders, and private prisons. The National Restaurant Association, a strong opponent of a higher minimum wage and other employee protections, is a contributor.
"These are corporations that we’re consistently campaigning against," Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, told reporter David Dayen. "They represent institutions that are not in the interest of black folks."
Some CBC members privately agree with Robinson’s criticism, along with many African-American progressives. The Intercept reported that to many CBC members, however, primary challenges by African-American candidates in majority African-American districts were "driven by young, white hipsters and wasn’t resonating with working-class Black voters." They charged that racial animus was behind the challenges.
Seemingly the most energetic and credible challenge to a CBC incumbent in 2020 was Morgan Harper’s challenge to Joyce Beatty in Ohio. Harper lost by two to one. Jeffries gloated on twitter: 'They started this fight. We’ll finish it."
CBC incumbents would run the table in the remaining primary challenges, Jeffries predicted. CBC incumbent Yvette Clark beat back three primary challengers to hold her seat.
In St. Louis, however, challenger Cori Bush defeated Lacy Clay, one of the most "open minded" CBC members on financial regulation issues. Bush’s political activism began with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed in an incident with a white police officer in 2014. Unlike George Floyd’s murder, there was no video of the incident and eye witness accounts were wildly inconsistent. The protests were part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jeffries did not support all Democratic incumbents against primary challenges. Ilhan Omar and AOC both had very well-funded primary challenges from the right in 2020. Omar’s principal opponent raised $2.2 million, primarily from far-right pro-Israel donors, Jeffries’ strong allies. Both Omar and AOC won handily without a word of support from Jeffries.
In 2021, Jeffries formed a PAC, "Team Blue," with Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Teri Sewell of Alabama, both undisputed corporate Democrats. Gottheimer was one of a handful of House Democrats who vocally opposed Build Back Better, Biden’s sprawling domestic agenda, as too far to the left. Gottheimer’s criticism was despite polling that the provisions that he opposed were very popular, especially among Democrats, and the resemblance of many of the provisions to the New Deal and the Great Society, when America was great before. The comparison of Gottheimer and his House allies to Manchin and Sinema in the Senate is more than fair. The left of the House Democratic caucus played team ball with the Biden administration; Gottheimer and his handful of allies did not.
Team Blue is primarily funded by corporate money, interests that often welcome Gottheimer’s obstruction of Biden’s domestic agenda. The mission is not to protect all incumbent Democrats from challenges, but to protect Democrats friendly to corporate interests from progressive challenges, or as Jeffries put it, challenges from "the hard left."
The 2022 election cycle promised many more opportunities for new progressive candidates, and the opportunity for a House Democratic caucus that would more nearly resemble Democratic voters. Redistricting creates new districts without incumbents and changes almost all the rest. Senior incumbents decide to retire rather than campaign in unfamiliar territory, especially as they consider a return to the minority. Progressives can elect new members in open seats without confrontations with incumbents like Joe Crowley and Lacy Clay, and the
hard feelings that may result. Open seats would allow progressives to develop a bench of candidates who can run for higher offices later, and to achieve the critical mass of support to force mainstream debate of progressive policies, despite the determination of establishment media to ignore anyone to the left of Hillary Clinton.
Party leaders usually rally around challenged incumbents, but let open seats, especially in safely Democratic districts, be decided locally, and work with whoever comes to Washington. Without an incumbent’s fundraising advantage, primaries for open seats are cheaper, and grassroots support matters.
That did not happen this year.
"A tidal wave of money is transforming Democratic primaries, blindsiding left-wing candidates who went into the cycle targeting a handful of safe seats," Washington Post political reporter David Weigel wrote. The headline on Weigel’s article was "The Empire Strikes Back."
A consortium of four "super PACs" made "independent expenditures" in a three-month period of $3,689,364 in a primary in North Carolina between a state senator from Chapel Hill and a county commissioner from Durham; $2,909,656 in a primary between a current state senator and a former state senator in a rural and small-town district in northeastern North Carolina; and $3,360,675 in a primary between a Pennsylvania state representative and a Pittsburg lawyer.
The Democratic establishment prostrates itself before the altar of diversity when the establishment candidate is a person of color, especially a woman of color, and the insurgent candidate is not. Summer Lee, the progressive candidate in the Pittsburg district, is an African-American woman, and her opponent, a “union avoidance” lawyer, is a straight white male. In an open seat in Oregon, a PAC associated with Nancy Pelosi spent $1 million to support a 35-year-old straight white male lawyer with no record of political or civic involvement against a Latina state representative, Andrea Salinas. A PAC controlled by a cryptocurrency billionaire spent another $15 million to support the straight white male lawyer, Carrick Flynn.
In an open seat that includes parts of Pittsburg and surrounding suburbs, a majority white district, white suburban primary voters got three pieces of mail a day that portrayed the state legislator, Summer Lee, as an angry Black woman who "want[ed] to dismantle the Democratic Party," the same line of attack that worked against Nina Turner in Cleveland. The same super PACs spent heavily to support Republicans in other districts.
The super PACs’ supposedly independent campaigns were "supported by powerful and connected firms in Democratic politics," Max Berger wrote in an investigative report published at More Perfect Union.
"Taken together, the endorsements, the donor overlap, and the party ties of the allegedly independent committees show that there is no real separation between the Democratic leadership and the "outside’ spending," David Sirota, a former Sanders campaign staffer, wrote
at The Lever. "This is one large party-sanctioned operation aimed at the left, even when corporatists are undermining the party’s agenda and its own president."
The super PACs have wholesome names-- "United Democracy Project," "Mainstream Democrats," "Protect Our Future"-- but their funding is sketchy. A major source of funding for the attacks on progressive candidates was right-wing American supporters of Israel’s right-wing government. Progressive candidates are attacked as anti-Semites for any criticism of the Israeli government. That is not a view shared by all American Jews, or likely even most American Jews. When the attacks are on Muslims, such as Ilhan Omar in Minnesota or Nida Allam, the progressive Durham County Commission who ran in one of the North Carolina primaries, the attacks sound more Islamophobic than a righteous defense of Jews against prejudice.
The primaries last week went better than progressives feared. The establishment candidates won in North Carolina, but Summer Lee eked out a win in the Pittsburg district and Salinas kicked Flynn’s ass in Oregon.
There will be more primaries between progressive and establishment candidates this year and for the foreseeable future. Most of the discussion on the left of the attacks on progressive candidates by right-wing super PACs with Democratic establishment support is how those attacks will affect electoral politics. The conflict within the Democratic Party in primaries will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.
But there is also the question how the big money effort to purge progressives will affect government, especially the House Democratic Caucus. The House leadership cannot plausibly claim not to have been involved in the effort. Jeffries, the presumptive next Democratic leader, has been closely allied with right-wing American supporters of the right-wing Israeli government who have funded the attacks that have savaged progressive candidates. He has repeatedly criticized progressives as the "hard left." He attacks progressives for giving "aid and comfort" to Donald Trump by diverging from the talking points provided by Democratic consultants with corporate clients. He treats criticism of the Democratic establishment as disloyalty.
Progressives who run the gauntlet of super PAC attacks to win seats in the House should know better than to trust establishment leadership, either the octogenarians now in charge or the next generation. House progressives need to reconsider their refusal to engage even selectively in the obstructionist tactics that the right-wing extremist Freedom Caucus has used to tie House Republicans in knots.
Progressives should remember that the House Democratic Caucus is a tough neighborhood. The only thing neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength.