By Jude Messler & Adrian Flynn, with additional questions by Cynthia Enofe
Before March 20th, a whirlwind of loudspeaker announcements and ubiquitous posters let students know that Congressman Hakeem Jeffries was coming to Beacon. Excitement soon followed as people prepared to listen to what the Representative from New York’s 8th Congressional District had to say. The Congressmen’s budding leadership role in the Democratic caucus has catapulted him into consideration for Nancy Pelosi’s successor as a possible speaker. Three of the top five Democrats in Congress are are rapidly approaching their eighties, and with the number four Democrat, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, two years Jefferies junior, running for U.S Senate, Jefferies path to the gavel seems clear. So what exactly does the man on the precipice of becoming the third in line for the presidency and arguably the second most powerful person in the country believe?
Representative Jeffries’ speech in front of front of around 100 students was heavy on quirky colloquialisms and fluffy encouragement. He preached the story of his political career, highlighting his two Assembly race losses before he eventually won. The underlying theme of his career was crystal clear to all present, when you are knocked down you always get back up. This pervasive message was an echo from his last appearance at Beacon, but his audience and spectacle this time was much larger. However, an addition from his last talk at our school was his inclusion of a Winston Churchill quote, “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Twenty minutes of what an anonymous student called “a true political speech” filled with motivational quotes and Game of Thrones references was followed by a succinct dive into policy issues. Rep. Jeffries concisely broke down what he believed to be the three biggest threats to the next generation: A transition from an industrial economy to a digital economy, gun violence, and climate change. Offering solutions to the latter two, Jefferies spoke about the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, recently passed by The House of Representatives, aimed at broadening and strengthening the national background check system for gun purchases. The bill passed the House on a 240-190 partisan vote and as Jefferies noted, has almost no chance of being passed by the current Senate. Even if the bill were to pass the Senate, President Trump told reporters he would veto it. On Climate Change, Jefferies expressed enthusiasm for a clean energy economy and stressed how transitionitioning to that economy would be one of the great challenges of the next decade. However, he briefly noted his opposition to the Green New Deal in its current form.
After Jefferies’ speech, the Beacon Beat had the opportunity to speak with Jefferies, below is the transcribed conversation:
Adrian Flynn (Beacon Beat): In the wake of the Christchurch shooting New Zealand did this incredible thing, within 10 days they passed gun control legislation. A lot of their success has to do with their system of government and the influence of money in politics. Do you see any possibility for us [America] to ever be able respond that quickly to a tragedy like that?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Yeah, the first major piece of legislation we passed this session was the For The People Act, H.R. 1, which is designed to help get unregulated money out of politics so that the public interest can prevail over special interests, like the NRA. The system of government in New Zealand, as you point out, is very different then what we have in this country, including the fact that we have a 2nd Amendment. That presents some challenges as it relates to how we go about promoting gun safety, but we are committed to making sure that we can pass meaningful legislation to address the gun violence epidemic that we have in the United States.
Cynthia Enofe: Our second question is, as you probably know, in 2019 only 7 out of 895 students who were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, one of the top public schools in New York City, were black. So how should the city address this problem of inequity in the public school system?
Jude Messler (Beacon Beat): We know you work on a federal level, but your roots are in the city.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries: It is a very important question.
Cynthia Enofe: And do you think [Mayor] De Blasio is working effectively to address this issue?
Representative Hakeem Jeffries: It seems to me that the DOE should figure out how to replicate more schools like Beacon. Which provides excellent education and draws people from a wide diversity of communities throughout the city of New York who then meld together as a community, receive a high level of education and then go out to be incredibly productive citizens. New York City is the only city that relies on a single test for admissions to certain specialized high schools. That appears to me to be an outdated model that needs to be reformed. The Mayor has about two and a half years left on his term and it seems to me to be an urgent challenge with respect to diversifying our specialized high schools that he should confront before he exits city hall.
Jude Messler (Beacon Beat): What are your thoughts on term limits in Senate and House. I know a lot of the new 2020 candidates have been pushing for it, so how do you feel?
Representative Hakeem Jeffries: Well in my view, the best thing that we can do is to reduce the influence of money in politics and the things the promote the power of incumbency rather than term limit individuals who may be doing a good job, but because you want to get rid of some of the bad actors, everybody has to go. I certainly understand the frustration that people have with the difficulties that often exist in defeating incumbents, but with the rise of social media and the ability of small donors increasingly to power grassroots campaigns, we have seen the playing field even to some degree. There is more reform work that needs to be done, but it seems to me that reform is a better approach then imposing a one size fits all solution through term limits. When you have a, sorta, batch of apples and there are a few bad apples in the batch it doesn’t make sense to dump out the whole thing. I can understand the frustration, and the need some people feel to dump the whole thing out rather then just extract the few bad apples.
Jude Messler (Beacon Beat): So [the idea of term limits] is just a gut reaction from some people?
Representative Hakeem Jeffries: Yeah, the most important thing we can do is reform our political system so that grassroots candidates who are community based have an opportunity to overcome the power of incumbency.
Adrian Flynn (Beacon Beat): [Representative] Ocasio-Cortez already showed it was possible.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries: She proved that it was possible. We have seen other instances of the times when we have to level the playing field even further and that is part of what H.R. 1 is designed to do.
Jude Messler (Beacon Beat): What do you think about Speaker Pelosi’s statement that impeachment is “just not worth it” and would you vote for impeachment based on evidence available today?
Representative Hakeem Jeffries: It seems to me that we have to wait for the Mueller report to be presented to the DOJ, Congress, and the American people (this interview was recorded before Attorney General Barr released his summary of the official Mueller report findings). Then we can all collectively decide what is the best way to proceed. The standard that Speaker Pelosi laid out is one that I agree with, which is that the case should be compelling, the evidence should be overwhelming, and public sentiment around impeachment should be bipartisan. At the end of the day, impeachment is the equivalent of a grand jury indictment. Conviction and the actual trial takes place in the Senate. The House, according to the Constitution, has the power to impeach The President. What that does is level a series of charges against The President that form the basis of a trial in the Senate. The Senate then has the responsibility to conduct the trial and can only remove The President if two-thirds of the Senate agree. Under the current situation that we find ourselves in, there are 47 Democrats and 53 Republicans which means it would take twenty Republican Senators to agree with those 47 Democrats to convict The President and remove him from office. That is why Speaker Pelosi has said, that if we decide to proceed with impeachment it needs to be bi-partisan in nature based on compelling and overwhelming evidence.
Beacon Beat: Thank you so much.
The Beacon Beat’s conversation with Rep. Jeffries gave us a new perspective on the man who would be the first black Speaker of the House. Smart, young, and not too far left it seems as though he is the establishment choice to lead the Democratic caucus. Speaking with him directly revealed the hype around him. Careful in his words, Jefferies clearly was thoughtful in crafting his answers to our questions. Like any good communicator he often referred to analogies to paint a coherent picture of his beliefs. His rhetoric was distinct in that it featured a more youthful and cosmopolitan tone than most American politicians. His approach to certain issues was non-controversial and clearly palatable to party elders. It seems to be only a matter of time before Congress is run by Speaker Hakeem Jeffries.