Hakeem Jeffries defeats Barbara Lee to become Dem caucus chair

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesPelosi divides Democrats with term-limit proposal Luján will have 'assistant Speaker' title K Street works to court minority lawmakers MORE (D-N.Y.) has been elected Democratic caucus chair after edging past a fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

In a 123-113 vote, Jeffries, one of the leaders of the party’s messaging arm, defeated veteran Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeFrederica Wilson: I never got an apology from John Kelly Ocasio-Cortez: John Kelly is a coward for refusing to apologize to Dem lawmaker Black Caucus chairman pushes back against committee term limits MORE (D-Calif.), a former CBC chairwoman.

Jeffries, 48, is seen as a rising star among House Democrats and potential future Speaker. He frequently appears on the cable news shows to advance the Democrats’ message and push back against the GOP agenda.

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But following his victory, Jeffries told reporters he wasn’t thinking about his future political ambitions and instead was solely focused on the task at hand. Jeffries will now preside over the rest of Wednesday’s leadership elections, which include picking a nominee for Speaker.

With Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) expected to easily become majority whip, that means there will be two black lawmakers serving in the top five leadership positions for the first time in history.

“I stand on the shoulders of people like Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnPelosi, Dem rebels near deal on term limits for party leaders Clyburn calls for new election and GOP primary in North Carolina House Dems worry about lack of women of color in leadership MORE … There’s a great legacy of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Jeffries told reporters. “It’s a proud moment for our community. But I’m focused on standing up for everyone.”

The contest between Lee and Jeffries underscored the generational divide in the Black Caucus as it pitted the CBC’s old guard against one of its younger members, who have been clamoring to move up the leadership ladder. But it also exposed regional rifts in the conference as well.

The Democratic Caucus chairman position — which will be the No. 5 position in House leadership next year — opened up after Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) was toppled this summer by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in a shocking primary defeat.

Members of the New York delegation argued that it was imperative to have one of their own fill the void at the leadership table.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), vice-chairwoman of the caucus, also announced a bid to lead the House Democratic Caucus, but dropped out after her husband was charged with misusing federal funds.

Lee’s leadership loss — twice in as many years — was especially stinging for the veteran lawmaker given that she came so close in both cases.

Some of Lee’s allies said she had the votes this time around, but accused members of flipping last minute.

"Barbara deserved it. I think there are a lot of fingers that can be pointed in a lot of different places,” said California Democrat Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierDem lawmaker: Trump Jr. lied to Congress on two occasions House Dems plan to re-interview witnesses from Russia probe Hakeem Jeffries defeats Barbara Lee to become Dem caucus chair MORE. “She had the votes and people flipped. So it's time for us to stand up and be counted as members of the caucus and not hide behind a secret ballot."

Lee, meanwhile, blamed institutional barriers, saying sexism and ageism worked against her.

“You heard and saw what took place,” she told reporters after the vote. “So I absolutely think that that's the case.”

“And that is something that women, especially women of color and African-American women, have to fight constantly each and every day,” Lee added. “We still have many glass ceilings to break.”

Jeffries pushed back on that notion, saying the race was a “friendly contest of ideas.”

“I look forward to all of us coming together,” Jeffries said.

While Lee’s loss was a huge disappointment to the California delegation, it could help tamp down some of the unrest among younger Democrats who have been demanding generational change in leadership.

Crowley, 56, was seen as a potential successor to Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi, Dem rebels near deal on term limits for party leaders Pelosi divides Democrats with term-limit proposal Oval Office clash ups chances of shutdown MORE (D-Calif.) one day, but his primary defeat stoked concerns that there wouldn’t be anyone in leadership who could be groomed to take the reins one day.

On Wednesday, Crowley gave his colleagues a departing gift: He sang them an Irish ballad.

“It’s an old Irish song that was my father’s favorite,” he told The Hill. “It’s a song that speaks about freedom, the need to maintain it, and it’s only when indignant hearts are broken that freedom really lives.”