Hakeem Jeffries On Why Voters Should Have Obama’s Back (And His, Too)
Democratic candidate enlisted to help cure stalemate-prone Congress
After winning the Democratic primary for New York’s 8th congressional seat last month, Hakeem Jeffries was tapped to join a crew of candidates and transform the way black voters think about electoral politics.
The “Have His Back” campaign promotes voting “down-ballot,” or rather discourages voters from leaving blanks on everything but the presidential section of a ballot empty. In Jeffries’ case, having Obama’s back means voters in his majority black district in Brooklyn will need to check a box next to his name as well.
Although Democratic strategists have long debated how to make it an issue that resonates with voters, there is no recent data on the rate of down-ballot non-voting among African Americans.
Jeffries, currently a New York state assemblyman in his early 40s, who will give up his seat in Albany, if elected to Congress this November, spoke with Loop 21 about the "Have His Back" campaign, and how it relates to his own.
LOOP 21: People generally understand that President Obama has to be re-elected so that his chief accomplishments aren’t rolled back by his Republican foes. What’s the simplest way for minority Democratic voters in your district and in districts around the country to understand the “down-ballot” message?
HAKEEM JEFFRIES: It’s equally important that we elect a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to defend and work closely with President Obama over the next four years. The Have His Back campaign is designed to make clear to the African American community the urgency of electing [that majority].
L21: There’s a sense of urgency for your own congressional campaign as well, right? In order to succeed as a candidate, which several political analysts say it’s likely you will, down-ballot voting has to be part of your own campaign message. Or is there a bigger message?
JEFFRIES: During the last two years, with Congress in the hands of extreme Tea Party radicals, we have seen the business of the American people come to a grinding halt. There are some in control of Congress right now who seem so determined to destroy the presidency of Barack Obama, that they’re willing to take the entire American economy down with him. That’s precisely why the African American community should come together to support the president's reelection and the election of a Democratic majority in Congress.
L21: How can that message resonate in communities when there is a lot of variation in how elections are administered? Someone using a voting machine versus a paper ballot will have a different experience when it comes to down-ballot voting, right?
JEFFRIES: Well, throughout the country in different states there will be people on the ground to provide technical assistance to voters. The most important message that I can communicate, as an African American state legislator is that [Republicans] don’t deserve to continue in power next year. [Republicans] have continually treated [Obama] and the office [of the presidency] disrespectfully. The Republican majority in Congress make the case themselves, as to why people in the African American community, and others of good will throughout the country, should reject their extreme partisan brand of politics and embrace [a Democratic majority].
L21: Beyond their rhetoric, it’s interesting that you mention the actions of Republicans toward the president and his cabinet. Many Democrats called the House contempt vote of Atty. Gen. Eric Holder a back door attack against the Obama administration.
JEFFRIES: The unprecedented actions taken by [the House], related to holding [Holder] in contempt did a disservice to the Congress because [the charges] were completely unjustifiable. That provides further evidence that the current Republican majority is out of control. The Republican majority in Congress has failed to leave politics behind and instead is dead set on undermining the legitimacy and productivity of President Obama.
L21: You have a lot of criticism for the current Congress, particularly House of Representatives, which you are campaigning to join. What’s more, you’ve been a member of a state legislature that, in recent years, has done some pretty impressive things for the people of New York – marriage equality, to name just one of a few. Why on earth would you want to give that up for a different legislative body, with tragically low approval ratings?
JEFFRIES: When I first ran for the state assembly, many of my friends in the legal community could not understand why in the world why I would want to go to Albany. At the time, it was viewed as the most dysfunctional legislature in the country. I was often asked, why I would want to go to Albany, that swamp of dysfunction. But as you’ve pointed out, over the last few years, we’ve gotten some meaningful things accomplished. They include progressive income tax reform, strengthening tenants rights, reforming the criminal just system in a way that make it fairer, and historic passage of marriage equality. I’m now being asked the question, which I never thought would be the case, why in the world would I want to leave Albany, that bastion of democracy, to go down to Washington, D.C. that swamp of dysfunction.
L21: Well, what’s the answer to that question?
JEFFRIES: I think my experience in the [New York] legislature gives me the opportunity to demonstrate that things can change, but not as a result of any one person. When there’s a movement of people committed to undertaking the solemn obligation of governing on behalf of the communities we were elected to represent, that is the challenge before me that I embrace, based on the success that I’ve had in the past.
L21: You all can’t spread this message alone. What can someone who isn’t running for office say to their friends and family, in barbershops, salons and churches, about the down-ballot issue?
JEFFRIES: It’s important for everyone to find out who is representing them currently in the House of Representatives and determine whether that person shares your ideals, values and support the President of the United States. There are many in the African American community who, upon asking what exactly their representative has been doing over the last two years, will determine to their dismay that they’re represented by someone in Congress who has undermined the efforts of Barack Obama.
To read more about Hakeem Jeffries’ campaign for congress, click here.