This is an opinion column.
She entered the chamber two years before the man who now stands on the precipice of history.
In 2013, the freshman US Congresswoman representing Alabama’s 7th Circuit – the young Ivy-educated woman from Selma, the heart of the Black Belt – welcomed the freshman, representing New York’s 8th Circuit, the Heart of Brooklyn and represents the new seat, in the House of Representatives, of black political power in the state, ousting Harlem.
Today, Rep. Terri Sewell considers Rep. Hakeem Jeffries “a very close confidante and friend,” she told me recently, a few days after Jeffries announced he was succeeding the stalwart Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, as Chair of the House of Representatives aspires to the Democratic faction. Jeffries is the face of a seismic generational shift for the party. A shift from being the first – and only – woman to lead House Democrats to possibly the first black man to lead either party on Capitol Hill.
A shift that’s a rare surrender in a realm where the Force normally holds its grip until fingers are cold, wrinkled, and numb.
Pelosi, 82, relinquishes the gavel after guiding it through four presidents for nearly two decades. In perhaps the best shadow ever cast by the chamber’s plenary session, Pelosi, announcing her decision to step down as party leader, said, “I’ve enjoyed working with three presidents and making historic investments in clean energy with President George Bush. Transformative healthcare reform with President Barack Obama. And shape the future with President Joe Biden, from infrastructure to healthcare to climate protection.”
Pause for full tone effect.
Shortly after Pelosi’s speech, Majority Whip James Clyburn, 82, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83 – their two key leaders in the Dem faction – said they too would step aside and pave the way for new, young blood. Or at least younger.
Jefferies is 52 years old. While other Dems can certainly throw their names into the battle for the top spot before members of the House of Representatives vote — expected on November 30 — Jeffries’ status as first mover has so far gone unchallenged. It has been widely speculated that Clyburn-Hoyer’s power gap under him will be filled by Deputy Speaker of Representatives Katherine Clark, 59, who represents the 5th Circuit outside of Boston; and current Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Pete Aguilar, 43, who in the nation’s capital represents California’s 31st congressional district and is the highest-ranking Latino in Congress.
The average age of the outgoing trio is just a few weeks over 82; the successors are on average just over 51 years old. That 31-year gap is larger than the staggering 26.8-year difference between the median age of Alabama’s elected officials (66.6 years) and its residents (39.8 years).
A seismic shift. damn time
Between now and their vote, amid the Thanksgiving break and the struggle to pass a budget and squeeze another bill through Congress, the House Dems are playing chess. (Not remotely to be confused with the tiddlywinks played by the leadership of the Democratic Party in Alabama.) Playing a never-ending game of moves and countermoves that begins as soon as the newly elected member of the House or Senate touches a Bible and his Oath ends with: “May God help me”.
Sewell’s alignment with Jeffries — she’s among the whippers who support him — and their longstanding friendship put her in a unique place at this unique time. At the nexus of change. Should he become caucus leader, Jeffries will dictate committee appointments (Sewell is a longtime member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee) and new leadership roles. Should he become leader, what might that mean for Alabama’s only Democrat in the US House or Senate?
Sewell didn’t want to talk specifically about new leadership opportunities, but shared, “[Jeffries] came to my mother’s homecoming services at my mother’s family church in Lowndes County. I’m part of his internal whipping team on his candidacy for minority leader to succeed Nancy Pelosi. I hope to continue to have a growing influence in the Democratic Group.”
New day. New moves.
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Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Commentary and a 2021 Edward R. Murrow Prize Winner for Podcasts: “Unjustifiable,” co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times and Mobile Press registers. Reach him below [email protected]follow him up twitter.com/roysjor on Instagram @roysj.