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US: Hakeem Jeffries Biography, Early Life, Education, Career, Wife, Children

Hakeem Jeffries, the first Black congressman and the youngest member to lead a party in Congress, was unanimously elected minority leader of the United States House of Representatives. Jeffries, whose political clout has grown from Crown Heights to Washington, is part of a new generation of leaders in American politics.

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With a background in social justice and legal skills, the Democrat has represented Brooklyn in the New York Assembly and, since 2013, in the United States Congress. As an impeachment manager, he showed off his oratory skills during the proceedings against former President Donald Trump, masterfully interspersing hip-hop lyrics with constitutional law.

Early Life and Education

Hakeem Sekou Jeffries was born on August 4, 1970, in Brooklyn, New York, to social worker Laneda (Gomes) Jeffries and substance-abuse counselor Marland Jeffries. Hakeem and his younger brother, Hasan, grew up in Crown Heights, a significant Black urban area in the 1970s and 1980s. Jeffries was surrounded by social justice values, both in the neighborhoods that elected Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress, and at home. On a civil rights platform, his father ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly.

Jeffries attended Midwood High School, a New York City public high school in a safe haven away from his drug-infested Brooklyn neighborhood. Jeffries excelled in honors courses, was a member of the baseball team, and expressed his desire to become a lawyer in the school yearbook.

The young Jeffries attended Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant with his family, where sermons by Reverend Harry S. Wright (the brother of Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman) and speeches by visiting politicians introduced him to an oratorical style and delivery that he would draw on later in his career.


Jeffries enrolled to SUNY Binghamton in 1988, a beautiful university merely a four-hour drive from Brooklyn but a cultural universe apart. Jeffries, a political science major, swiftly adjusted. He became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically Black fraternity, and was later elected president. On campus, Jeffries would also meet his future wife, Kennisandra Arciniegas.

Jeffries was elected as the Black Student Union’s political representative during his final year. Dr. Leonard Jeffries, a political scientist, professor, and chair of the Black Studies department at City College of New York, was asked to speak at SUNY Binghamton that year.

In a prior speech, he asserted that Jewish people helped finance the transatlantic slave trade, which not only jeopardized Leonard’s academic future but also sparked debate on the predominantly white campus. Hakeem was forced to balance the university’s speaking invitation with claims of anti-Semitism and censorship. He did, however, demonstrate an aptitude to navigate difficult circumstances and to defuse tensions.

Jeffries obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1992 and then enrolled at Georgetown University, where he earned his master’s degree in public policy two years later. He subsequently attended New York University Law School, where he sat on the Law Review and graduated with honors in 1997.

Legal Career

Jeffries clerked for Judge Harold Baer Jr. of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York after graduating from law school. Jeffries worked at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP for several years. He worked as a litigation counsel for Viacom Inc. and CBS, where he represented CBS in a civil complaint involving Janet Jackson‘s wardrobe malfunction during her 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance with Justin Timberlake. Jeffries also served as an associate at Godosky & Gentile, a New York City litigation firm.

From Big Law to Politics

Jeffries campaigned for office twice, both times unsuccessfully, before being elected to the New York State Assembly in 2006. Supporters and the media dubbed him “The Barack of Brooklyn;” he was youthful, charismatic, and born on the same day as another Black politician, former President Barack Obama. During his six years in Albany, he authored legislation on a wide range of civil rights and criminal justice reform issues, including the conversion of vacant high-end condominiums into affordable housing, the abolition of prison-based gerrymandering, and meaningful reform of the controversial stop-and-frisk program of the New York Police Department.

Jeffries was elected to New York’s diverse 8th Congressional District in 2012. Jeffries, a member of the House Judiciary and Budget Committees, was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in November 2018. He is also a former whip for the Congressional Black Caucus and a former co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Jeffries, a prolific legislative author, has seen several of his bills pass the House of Representatives, often with broad bipartisan support, including measures to ensure access to benefits information for veterans and their families, as well as several bills that expand rights to people who have been incarcerated.

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, selected Jeffries as one of seven impeachment managers in the January 2020 impeachment of President Donald Trump, who was accused of encouraging Ukraine to investigate his opponent Joe Biden during that year’s presidential race. In his closing speech, Jeffries referred to Trump as “a clear and present danger to our national security,” and he advocated for the former president’s removal from office. The Senate acquitted Trump two days later.

First Black Lawmaker to Lead a Party

Jeffries was unanimously elected House minority leader of the 118th Congress on January 3, 2023. He is the first Black American to hold the position, as well as the first person born after WWII to be elected to head the House Democrats. Jeffries, a member of a new generation of leaders, replaces Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as House speaker and lead a political party in Congress.

“This is the United States of America, a land of opportunity,” Jeffries declared after his historic election. The fact that I’m allowed to stand here now is yet another data point in that story.” The final section of his inauguration speech, however, reverberated outside the House chamber and online, where he masterfully provided an A-to-Z list of Democratic beliefs. The so-called alphabet speech includes the following sentence:

“House Democrats will always put American values over autocracy, benevolence over bigotry, the Constitution over the cult, democracy over demagogues, economic opportunity over extremism, freedom over fascism, governing over gaslighting, hopefulness over hatred, inclusion over isolation, justice over judicial overreach, knowledge over kangaroo courts, liberty over limitation, maturity over Mar-a-Lago, normalcy over negativity, opportunity over obstruction, people over politics, quality of life issues over QAnon, reason over racism, substance over slander, triumph over tyranny, understanding over ugliness, voting rights over voter suppression, working families over the well-connected, xenial over xenophobia, ‘yes, we can’ over ‘you can do it,’ and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation.”

As House minority leader, Jeffries was instrumental in negotiating the 2023 measure to raise the debt ceiling and limit federal spending in order to avoid a catastrophic U.S. government default in early June. The debt ceiling bill cleared the House on May 31 and was sent to the Senate the next day. President Joe Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 on June 3, averting a catastrophe.

Wife and Children

Jeffries married Kennisandra Arciniegas, a social worker he met as a student at SUNY Binghamton, in 1997. They live in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights area with their two sons.

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