WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Wednesday elected new leaders to take the mantle from the three octogenarians who have led them for two decades, ushering in a long-awaited generational change that, for the first time in the history of either party or chamber in Congress, installed a trio of top leaders that includes no white men.
In a display of unity after midterm elections in which they lost the House but had a stronger than expected showing, Democrats skipped a vote and by acclamation elected Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York to be minority leader, making him the first Black person to hold the top spot. Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts was elected as whip, the lead vote counter for House Democrats, and Representative Pete Aguilar of California as the chair of the party caucus, in charge of messaging.
Jeffries, 52; Clark, 59; and Aguilar, 43, who for years have positioned themselves as an unofficial joint slate of candidates and have patiently waited their turn, ran unopposed after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who has led the party for two decades, announced this month that she would step aside, paving the way for fresher faces at the top of her party.
Both Representatives Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, and Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, had been considering challenging Jeffries for the post of minority leader. But Hoyer said he, too, would step aside. And many Democrats said Schiff lacked the votes to secure the post and last week had told Jeffries that he was instead exploring a run for Senate, wishing him well in the upcoming leadership election, according to a person familiar with the private conversation who disclosed it on the condition of anonymity.
The mood was jovial Wednesday inside the ornate committee hearing room across from the Capitol where Democrats met to elect their new leaders.
Democrats, for the most part, said they saw the lack of competitive races as a sign of strength and unity, and a stark contrast to the fractured Republican conference, in which Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, is struggling to win the support he needs to become speaker amid a revolt on his right flank. A historically weak midterm performance has handed the GOP a razor-thin House majority for the next Congress, making the job of leading it exceedingly difficult.
“It shows that Democrats are in array, Republicans are in disarray,” said Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, noting that the new slate of leaders, which includes a Black man, a white woman, and a Latino man, “reflects the beautiful diversity of America.”
Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said she was excited to have a leader “who actually does represent the diversity of our caucus.”
Yet some Democrats called the uncontested election a missed opportunity for them to discuss how their party was shifting and how it should move forward.
“This is the most significant generational change that we have seen in House Democrats in several decades,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “I personally believe that we would benefit from a debate on what that means.”
The leadership elections marked a sea change for the caucus, which for two decades has been led by the same trio of leaders, who effectively froze out dozens of more junior lawmakers who had been waiting to ascend.
Pelosi’s announcement before Thanksgiving that she would step down from leadership set the long-awaited change in motion. Hoyer quickly followed suit, and Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the whip, said he would relinquish the third-ranking spot and seek a lower position.
His decision to stay in leadership, however, rankled some members.
On Wednesday, Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is gay, said he planned to challenge Clyburn for the position of assistant leader.
“With so much at stake, I think it is critical that the House Democratic leadership team fully reflect the diversity of our caucus and the American people by including an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table,” he said in a letter to his colleagues announcing his bid. That race will be decided Thursday.
In remarks to reporters ahead of the election, Jeffries described the role he was about to assume as a “solemn responsibility.”
“When we get an opportunity as diverse leaders to serve in positions of consequence, the most meaningful thing that we can do in that space is do an incredibly good job,” Jeffries said.
He downplayed the divisions among Democrats and expressed confidence in his ability, along with his expected leadership team, to keep the party united in the coming year.
“There’s nothing more unifying than being in the minority and having a clear-eyed objective and goal of getting back into the majority so we can continue to deliver big things for everyday Americans,” he said.