By Glenda Cadogan
“A knock down is different from a knock out.” So goes the Hakeem Jeffries remix version of a Winston Churchill quote which says: “Success is not final and failure is not fatal. All that matters is the courage to continue.” For Congressman Jeffries, the 5th highest ranking Democratic in United States House of Representatives, this is his go-to expression when the sweat of politics or life in general floods his brow. Undoubtedly, the Brooklyn Congressman knows a thing or two about being knocked down. As a young lawyer, he twice ran for a seat in the NYS Assembly and lost. “Those were difficult moments,” he says. “But then I realized that in any field of endeavor the people who achieved the highest degree of success have had moments of challenge. Those who achieve are the ones who persevere toward their goal, recognizing that though they may have been knocked to the ground, they needed to get up and keep moving toward the finish line.” Subsequently, Jeffries won an Assembly seat and served there for six years representing the 57th District. In 2013, he handily won the mandate as the representative of the 8th Congressional District, serving Brooklyn and parts of Queens — considered one of the most diverse districts in the nation.
Once in Washington, Jeffries’ rise was nothing short of meteoric. He evolved into a prolific legislator, a passionate people’s advocate, and a skillful negotiator all rolled into one while serving on hard-hitting committees like House Judiciary and Budget. He accomplished this in addition to being the Chairman of the House Democrats in Congress. The accolades began rolling in as his face time in the national media increased. He was referred to as “the Barack Obama of Brooklyn” and described as “the changing face of Washington” in a newspaper article. But Jeffries’ self-description is a bit more modest and pointed. “As a public servant I have endeavored to work hard on behalf of the communities I am privileged to represent,” he says, adding, “Also, I am thoughtful in my approach and determined to get things done in a manner that improves the quality of lives for my constituents. In that sense I would simply say I’m hardworking, thoughtful, and determined.”
Growing up in a union household in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Jeffries and his younger brother were raised in Cornerstone Baptist Church, located a short ride away in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the borough. “The rhythm of Central Brooklyn is an important part of the person I have grown into today. My coming of age followed a parallel track with the rise and influence of hip-hop in the 80s and its maturation into the 90s,” he explained. “Growing up in a community-centered institution like Cornerstone — where I am still a member — is an incredibly critical foundation in my life. The Black Church is important to the journey of African Americans in this country and it played a similar role in my growth and development.” So in Jeffries’ world, the seeming dichotomy of church and hip-hop was nonexistent. Not surprising then that as a noted orator, the Congressman can likely recite a verse from The Blessed Assurance and in the next breath bust a rhyme from The Notorious B.I.G.
It is this colorful tapestry of history that gives the Brooklyn Congressman an enlivening brand of sensitivity as a politician and informs his impassioned work in areas like Criminal Justice Reform. Jeffries was the lead sponsor on the cutting edge piece of legislation in the last Congress that gave rise to the signing into law of the FIRST STEP Act. Under this law, $375 million was allocated over five years to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully transition back into society. It includes assistance in job training, education, vocational services, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling necessary to gain the skills to reenter and become productive members of their communities. The legislation has been called “the most meaningful criminal justice reform effort in a generation.” According to Jeffries, he is delighted the bill “rolls back some of the draconian, so-called “tough-on-crime” measures passed during the failed war on drugs. “FIRST STEP has already resulted in more than 1,000 people released from prison, the overwhelming majority of whom are from the African and Caribbean American communities,” Jeffries said with pride. “Finally some measure of justice.”
In his formative years, Jeffries was a product of Brooklyn Montessori School in Park Slope, which was a haven for working class families. He later attended Midwood High School in Flatbush. One word made the difference in what could have been the story of Hakeem Jefferies, M.D. as opposed to Hakeem Jeffries, J.D. “On my way into Midwood I explored the possibility of pursuing a career in medicine,” he recalled. “On my way out of Midwood I realized this was unlikely because of this one word: physics. So I shifted my focus to subjects where I excelled the most like American History. After graduating Law School, Jeffries enjoyed a prolific legal career before throwing his hat in the political ring.
On any given day, the Congressman can be found hard at work fighting against the foreign policy of the current administration or protecting our civil liberties. But there are days when he is happy to put down the political football for a baseball and have fun. “I find great joy in participating in the annual charitable congressional baseball game between Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “What I enjoy most are the weeks of practice leading up to the game.
We are out on the field at 7:00 in the morning and there is such incredible camaraderie. It’s not that I am claiming credit, but I am pleased that for the six years I’ve been participating, the Dems won five times,” he quipped. Married and the father of two teenage boys, Jeffries also enjoys regular family outings to the movies. The genre of choice… you guessed it, superheroes.
So a word of advice to anyone journeying to Nationals Park to witness this year’s Dems vs. Republicans baseball game: if you see a player in left field get knocked down while on a run for a ball, know if his name is Hakeem Jeffries, he is by no means knocked out.