By Adrian Flynn
Photos by Erdene R. Greene
Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic Representative of New York’s 8th district in the United States Congress, came to Beacon on May 2nd to address students and take questions from people interested in politics and the current political climate from the perspective of a prominent politician. The event was organized by Model Congress, with Senior Kareem Sidibe introducing Jeffries and his son, Beacon Junior Jeremiah Jeffries, who was sitting beside him.
Jeffries started by acknowledging the pressures in student life and the college process, while also offering congratulations for seniors who have already been accepted into their respective universities. He also drew a laugh as he noted that “as aspiring politicians you understand that you always acknowledge your wife at the very beginning.” Coincidentally, his wife, Kennisandra Arciniegas-Jeffries was in attendance.
As he described his journey into politics, Jeffries began with his focus on public policy in his earlier studies and making his way through corporate law, before finally running for the New York State Assembly in Brooklyn. He mentioned that it was inspiring for him to see so many students interested in politics at this time by trying to make a difference in the areas and social environments that they care most about. He emphasized that this is a “core American value,” saying that the system of government of the United States, of, by and for the people, had always “necessitated citizen engagement in order to preserve the things that are of great importance to us.”
The focus on public affairs was a key topic for Jeffries, as he said it gave him a “great deal of confidence” that we would continue to uphold the democratic system of our country. Jeffries drew on the ideas of the Founding Fathers in addressing the students to show how extraordinary and novel of a concept that the United States was and still is. He remarked that we seem to have upheld these values, but that “many would argue at this moment [that] it’s being challenged like it has never been challenged before.”
As he reflected on his first races in Brooklyn for the 57th Assembly District, he explained how running a successful campaign would not be an easy endeavor. A big democratic establishment “machine” held a great deal of influence and Jeffries was working from the “outside” at that time. In his first Assembly primary race, he said he had “no name recognition” and that he initially asserted that he could only count on himself and his wife to vote for him. However, he revised that statement, saying, “even that calculation, my wife might agree, would be a little bit shaky. Because, you know, on any given night, [if] a brother’s not doing the right thing at home, I could suffer a 50% erosion!”
He ended up getting 41% of the vote in his first race against a 20-year Democratic incumbent and by doing so “shocked the establishment.” He noted; however, that in 2002, his apartment was drawn out of the assembly district by a block. Grinning, Jeffries said “However this came about, my apartment had been drawn out of the assembly district I had just run in… by a block.” He said to us that he knew that politics in Brooklyn could be rough, but “cutting my house out of the district by a block… that move is gangsta.”
With the district change in tow, Jeffries ran again in 2006 and finally won after the incumbent decided to run for Congress. His hard-fought win taught him that “often, people will encounter failure before they’re able to achieve success,” a lesson he said could be applied to any profession and life in general. As Jeffries learned from his mistakes, he came out “stronger on the other side.” As advice to anyone running for office, he said that they would need to “out-organize… out-raise and out-work the opposition.” He also emphasized that the most “powerful thing” a candidate can do is to knock on doors and get as much “face-to-face time” with voters as possible. Smiling, he said “Door to door wins the war.”
Contributing more political advice, Jeffries added that anyone in a leadership position should be able to handle unexpected adversity. When asked about the state of the Democratic Party after the 2016 election, Jeffries reflected on the shock that he and many across the country felt, and even noted that he allowed his son to participate in the Beacon walk-out in protest of Donald Trump’s election. He said that the way that the Democratic Party can find a way to be successful again is to shape public sentiment, as he echoed the phrase expressed by Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” Jeffries believes that the Democrats successfully used this method to stave off the Republicans’ first attempt to remove protections in the Affordable Care Act, which eventually did not pass, as so many people voiced their concerns to their representatives in Congress. He also described Hillary Clinton as being “clearly ‘out-messaged’ by the opposition,” mainly because Donald Trump was a master of “speaking in headlines” while Clinton was trying to persuade people with “fine print.” Trump effectively grabbed people’s attention by distilling complicated issues down to headlines, while Clinton struggled with blue collar Americans particularly because she could not persuade them despite having actual complex policy proposals. Jeffries believes that we should govern in fine print in order to get programs like social security and medicare passed but that we should communicate in headlines. He also noted that with this strategy learned directly from the 2016 campaign, the Democrats are in a “good position to take back the House.”
In response to a question about the dynamics between members of Congress, Jeffries believes that there is room for policy criticism, but that personal criticism is a line that should not be crossed. This is especially true because personal issues are where representatives can find common ground, especially with a topic such as raising children and families, as Jeffries remarked.
In any government setting, Jeffries emphasized that, looking forward, we must uphold the checks and balances system of the three branches of government and respect for the rule of law. He stressed that the current situation in the Executive branch is “not normal” and that the Congress needs to be “an independent body to check a potentially out of control executive,” and that Judges should be exercising the rule of law without being attacked as “so-called judges.” He also commented on the importance of a free press, protected under the First Amendment. Jeffries views this freedom as “currently under threat,” with Trump’s denunciation of some of the nation’s most reputable sources. In his conclusion to Beacon students, he spoke to the importance of civic engagement for future generations and ordinary citizens, and how this involvement can “continue our necessary and majestic march toward a more perfect union.”