Democrats elect Meeks as first Black Foreign Affairs chairman

Greg Nash

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) will be the first African American chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, winning a caucuswide vote on Thursday to secure the top spot of the panel. 

Meeks, who was the third-ranking member of the committee, beat out Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) in the caucuswide vote, 148-78. Castro had run a public campaign garnering outside support from dozens of progressive groups endorsing him to lead the committee.

Castro congratulated Meeks in a statement, welcoming the chance to work together on shared goals of increasing diversity at the State Department and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. The Texas lawmaker also commended Sherman for his dedication to the committee, having served on every subcommittee panel and “his decades of persistent work on arms control and U.S. policy in Asia.” 

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the second-ranking member of the panel, had withdrawn his name from the race following a vote in the Democrats Steering and Policy Committee.

Meeks will take over the chair in January that is being vacated by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who lost his June primary contest to his progressive challenger, Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman. 

Opponents of Meeks had criticized the New York lawmaker as disconnected from the committee, saying he had dedicated his time to the House Committee on Financial Services and put his weight behind legislation on that panel over his commitment to the Foreign Affairs committee. 

But supporters note Meeks’s long history on the Foreign Affairs panel, good relationships with both Democratic members and Republicans, membership of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and commitments to progressive foreign policy positions that have gained wider support in recent years. 

This includes supporting Biden’s push to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; address legislation surrounding the Authorization for Use of Military Force, reasserting Congress’s authority for oversight of military intervention; and pushing for more diverse voices on the committee and in hearings.  

Meeks, in an interview with The Hill last month, said his priorities if elected chair include a focus on rebuilding trans-Atlantic alliances and reinvigorating the State Department.

“We’ve got a lot of allies that we’ve got to make sure that they know that we’re back at the table again,” he told The Hill.

“I think we do need to look at what took place within the State Department so that we can make sure that it doesn’t ever happen again” he continued. “The State Department is at its lowest in morale in all of the 22 years that I’ve been in congress. As I talk to diplomats, career diplomats, it is unbelievable from what they tell me as to the low morale and what has taken place there.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, wrote on Twitter he was “thrilled” for the history-making election of Meeks.

“I am proud to join Rep. Meeks as he works to restore American global leadership & smart, strong, diplomacy!,” he tweeted.

Meeks’s victory was welcomed by Foreign Policy 4 America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, that pointed out the New York lawmakers win makes him the only second nonwhite chairman of the commitee, in addition to his turn as the first Black chairman (Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first Cuban-American and woman to chair the committee in 2011).

“We are thrilled to work with Rep. Meeks in the 117th Congress to revitalize the State Department, ramp up investment in diplomacy and other non-military tools of engaging the world, and restore diplomacy to the center of American foreign policy,” the organization said in a statement. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the progressive pro-Israel group J Street, said he looks forward to working with Meeks “to help revitalize the State Department and American diplomacy, to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA, to promote comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace and to oppose the dangers of creeping annexation in the West Bank.”

Congratulations for the incoming chairman also came from the pro-Israel Democratic Majority for Israel and Jewish Democratic groups like Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA).

“We are confident that Rep. Meeks will also work with a strengthened Biden Administration State Department to restore the importance of diplomacy and multilateralism as core tenets of U.S. foreign policy,” JDCA Executive Director Halie Soifer said in a statement. “This is important to Jewish Americans, who want to see America work with our allies to confront global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change, and Iran’s nuclear development.” 

The New York lawmaker represents the 5th Congressional District, which includes parts of Queens and southeastern Long Island, and has served in Congress since 1998. He was born and raised in East Harlem, growing up in a public housing project. He received his bachelors from Adelphi University and his law degree from Howard University Law School. 

Updated at 4:31 p.m.

Tags Brad Sherman Eliot Engel Gregory Meeks House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Joaquin Castro Ted Deutch

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