How Hakeem Jeffries Became the Barack of Brooklyn

hj 0022 How Hakeem Jeffries Became the Barack of BrooklynThe emcee invoked Matthew 16:24. “Jesus said to his followers if anyone wants to follow me, he must say no to the things he wants. He must be willing to even die on the cross and he must follow me.”

Hundreds of parishioners had gathered in the basement of the 96-year-old Brown Memorial Church in Clinton Hill for Pastor Appreciation Night. But before they could settle in for a dinner of green salad, fruit cup, turkey with stuffing and grilled tilapia, they had to sit through a keynote address-and more of the emcee.

“We know this man is talented,” he went on. “And we know he is going to do even bigger and better things, but we also know how much he has sacrificed. … The one, the only, the Honorable Hakeem Jeffries!”

The parishioners and many far beyond central Brooklyn have been expecting bigger and better things from Hakeem Jeffries since before he was even a candidate for the Assembly. His funky first name, his appeal to both black churchgoers and earnest reform types and his academic pedigree-graduate degree from Georgetown University, law degree from N.Y.U.-have earned him the label “Brooklyn’s Barack.”

“He’s got charisma, he’s personable, he’s bright, he’s good-looking, he’s got a great family,” said a local lawmaker who has served alongside him. “I think if most of his colleagues were being honest, they would tell you that they wouldn’t mind being him. It’s a good thing he’s a nice guy, because it overlooks the fact that people are jealous as hell of him.”

Mr. Jeffries, 40, has been floated for various offices up and down the ballot, from dark horse mayoral contender in 2013 to attorney general. But what has political circles buzzing is his long-talked-about run for Congress, perhaps as soon as next year, setting up an epic battle against the 28-year incumbent, Ed Towns.

When asked about a run, he refused to rule out the possibility. “I certainly don’t envision being in the Assembly for the balance of my career.”

At Brown Memorial, Mr. Jeffries, who grew up in Crown Heights, stepped into preacher mode, dropping his “er’s,” swapping out “isn’t” for “ain’t,” punctuating his speech with “Can I talk?”

It was a different man than the one who, in interviews, speaks in deliberate and thoughtful paragraphs; who after law school went to work at the white-shoe law firm Paul, Weiss; and who eschewed becoming a partner in order to run for the Assembly in 2000 against Roger Green, a two-decade incumbent and a favorite of the Brooklyn Democratic machine.

“It was just at that moment I believed Roger Green had lost some steam,” he said. “I believe people should have choices, and I decided to present myself as another choice.”

Mr. Jeffries was just 29 but gave Mr. Green a scare.

It took another two years to go from obscure Brooklyn political striver to something of a national face for good government. Then, as Mr. Jeffries was laying the groundwork for another campaign, Mr. Green redrew the home that Mr. Jeffries shared with his wife and two young sons out of the 57th Assembly District entirely.

“Brooklyn politics can be pretty rough,” Mr. Jeffries said in a 2010 documentary about the ways in which politicians manipulate redistricting. “But that move was gangster.”

In an interview in the pastor’s office at Brown Memorial, Mr. Jeffries was looking typically bespoke-pinstripes and purple tie, with a matching purple pocket square.

He said that losing to Mr. Green and then having his house deleted from the district set him on his political path.

“When I was cut out, I made the absolute determination that I would challenge Roger Green again because of the principle involved,” he said.

The next year, he had a chance to gain his first foothold in electoral politics when City Councilman James Davis was assassinated at City Hall. Labor groups wanted Mr. Jeffries to replace him, but Davis’ younger brother, Geoffrey, wanted to keep the seat in the family. Mr. Jeffries tried to talk Mr. Davis out of running a few days after the shooting, knowing that even if he didn’t run, whoever did would win. Mr. Davis insisted on carrying on his brother’s legacy, and Mr. Jeffries stepped aside. Mr. Davis went on to get swamped by Letitia James, a staffer to Roger Green and now one of the strongest contenders for the central Brooklyn Congressional seat that Mr. Jeffries covets.

The funny thing about that seat however, is that it is not exactly available. Even though Mr. Towns has become an increasingly scarce presence in the district and was recently removed from his post as the ranking member of his House committee, he has given no indication that he intends to retire.

Mr. Jeffries has been a shrewd political operator-his detractors see him as overly calculating-since he finally won the Assembly seat, in 2006. He is a favorite of Brooklyn political boss Vito Lopez, but he is also close to a group of reformers who want to oust Mr. Lopez. He has come down in the middle of the heated fight over Atlantic Yards. His district includes some of the most rapidly gentrifying parts of Brooklyn, including Fort Green, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill, but he has made a name for himself racking up legislative victories on issues that may matter more to the desperately poor precincts that surround those neighborhoods, including the outlawing of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk database.

If he takes on Mr. Towns in ’12, he could have a clear shot at the longtime congressman. If he waits, he could see a Congressional district redrawn to better suit his political base, but he could face the prospect of running in a crowded primary that would feature not only Ms. James, but also Councilman Charles Barron.

Mr. Barron, a fiery former Black Panther who has taken to heckling Andrew Cuomo at his public events, is something of the anti-Jeffries.

“Why would I comment on Hakeem Jeffries?” Mr. Barron asked The Observer. “You only want to profile him because he is more acceptable to the establishment. He makes y’all more comfortable than I do.”

As 2012 inches closer, Mr. Jeffries is keeping up a frenetic pace. In the past week alone, he went to four church services, including the one at Brown Memorial; two panels on redistricting reform; a funeral for a constituent; a 50th birthday party for another; and a handful of Black History Month celebrations. Seemingly everywhere there is a line of people waiting to speak to him, from the reporters at obscure foreign-language newspapers who want his opinion on Cathie Black (he is leading a lawsuit to have her waiver revoked); to the teacher’s union rep who interrupts an interview on school closures to say, “Hey, pretty eyes”; to the earnest and bespectacled young men who want advice on how to start their own political career.

At Brown Memorial, Mr. Jeffries hit all the right notes. He quoted Martin Luther King. He talked about how black politicians like Barack Obama, David Paterson and Charlie Rangel are constantly under attack. He talked about the African impala, an animal he said had a phenomenal ability to leap and run but could be constrained inside a 3-foot-high fence because it won’t jump over something if it doesn’t see where it will land; he just as easily could have been talking about himself and his future-and that of central Brooklyn.

“I think there are a lot of folks out in the community who understand that change must happen but because they can’t see clearly the outcome, they prefer just to stand in place,” he said. “It’s fairly obvious that if you take this leap forward, you won’t be disappointed in where you land.”

dfreedlander@observer.com