How may historic generational powershift in the U.S. House impact Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell’s leadership role?

By Roy S. Johnson

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 01: U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) takes selfie with U.S. Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) as they wait for the start of U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol’s House Chamber March 01, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein-Pool/Getty Images)Getty Images

This is an opinion column.

She strode into the chamber two years before the man now positioned at the precipice of history.

In 2013, the still-fresh U.S. Congresswoman representing Alabama’s 7th District—the Ivy-educated young woman from Selma, the heart of the Black Belt—welcomed to the House the freshman representing New York’s 8th district, the heart of Brooklyn and the new seat of Black political power in the state, supplanting Harlem.

Today, Rep. Terri Sewell considers Rep. Hakeem Jeffries “a very close confidante and friend,” she shared with me recently, a few days after Jeffries announced he was seeking to succeed stalwart House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House Democratic Caucus. Jeffries is the face of a seismic, about-damn-time generational shift for the party. A shift from the first—and only—woman to lead House Democrats to potentially the first Black man to lead either party on Capitol Hill.

A shift that is a rare handoff in a realm where power typically holds its grip until fingers are cold, wrinkled, and numb.

Pelosi, 82, is ceding the gavel after wielding it for nearly two decades, through four presidents. In maybe the best shade ever thrown from the chamber podium, Pelosi, in announcing her decision to relinquish party leadership, said: “I have enjoyed working with three presidents, achieving historic investments in clean energy with President George Bush. Transformative healthcare reform with President Barack Obama. And forging the future from infrastructure to healthcare to climate action with President Joe Biden.”

Pause for full shade effect.

Soon after Pelosi’s speech, Majority Whip James Clyburn, 82, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83—her two key leaders in the Dem caucus—said they, too, would step aside, paving the way for new, young blood. Or youngish, at least.

Jefferies is 52. While other Dems may certainly toss their names into contention for the top spot before House members vote—expectedly on November 30—Jeffries’ status as first-mover has thus far gone unchallenged. It’s been widely speculated that the Clyburn-Hoyer power void under him will be filled by Assistant Speaker Rep. Katherine Clark, 59, who represents the 5th district outside Boston; and current caucus vice chair Rep. Pete Aguilar, 43, who stands in the nation’s capital representing California’s 31st congressional district and is the highest-ranking Latino in Congress.

The average age of the outgoing trio is just a few weeks beyond 82; the successors average just over 51 years old. That 31-year gap is wider than the cavernous 26.8-year difference between the average age of Alabama’s elected officials (66.6 years) and (39.8 years) residents.

A seismic shift. About damn time.

Between now and their vote, amid the Thanksgiving respite and the struggle to pass a budget and squeeze another bill through Congress, House Dems are playing chess. (Not to be remotely confused with the Tiddlywinks played by Alabama Democratic party leadership.) Playing an unceasing game of moves and counter moves that begin as soon as the newly elected member of the House or Senate touches a Bible and concludes their oath with, “So help me God”.

Sewell’s alignment with Jeffries—she’s among the whips herding support for him—and their longstanding friendship puts her in a unique place in this unique time. At the nexus of change. Should he become caucus leader, Jeffries will hold sway over committee appointments (Sewell is a long-time member of the powerful House Ways and Means committee) and new leadership roles. Should he become leader, what might it mean for Alabama’s only Democrat in the U.S. House or Senate?

Sewell wouldn’t speak specifically about new leadership possibilities but shared: “[Jeffries] came to my mother’s homecoming services in my maternal family church in Lowndes County. I am a part of his internal whip team in his run for minority leader to succeed Nancy Pelosi. I hope to continue to have a growing influence in the Democratic caucus.”

New day. New Moves.