This interview was conducted via phone in the fall of 2015, but the questions and responses remain relevant, and will be so for the foreseeable future.
The Representative: Hakeem Jeffries grew up in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and has served New York's eighth congressional since 2013. He sits on the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Previously he was a member of the New York State Assembly for the 57th district from 2007 to 2012.
The interviewer: Wandy Ortiz is a Brooklyn-born, New Jersey-raised student at St. John’s University, majoring in English and French. She is glad to have become a contributing writer and interviewer for Odyssey.
Odyssey: What actions have you taken in Congress or causes have you championed to improve the lives of college students and recent graduates in your district?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, I have introduced legislation designed to reduce the interest rate on student loans, recognizing that the government should not be making money on the backs of college students.
Odyssey: Increases in college tuition have been outpacing inflation for a few decades, and now the amount of student loan debt has surpassed the credit card debt held by all Americans. What specifically can Congress do to rein in these costs, if anything?
Rep. Jeffries: Well, the fact that student loan debt is an excess of $1 trillion is deeply troubling. We need to increase support for grant programs such as the Pell grant awards that have consistently over time helped hundreds of thousands of young people make it through college. We need a system that is less reliant on loans, and has more engagement with respect to grants and other forms of financial assistance.
Odyssey: Beyond college costs, which three political issues affecting 18 to 30-year-olds aren’t being talked about enough?
Rep. Jeffries: There’s a jobs crisis in America that puts young Americans at a significant disadvantage. We need to make sure young people have access to good quality jobs upon graduation. We need to make sure we have a fair and just criminal justice system consistent with our founding principles. Lastly, we need to make sure we address the hosing affordability crisis in America so that young people can pursue their dreams of home ownership.
Odyssey: Congress has a notoriously low approval rating among Americans, regardless of the party in control. Why is the branch that’s supposed to represent the people thought of so poorly by them?
Rep. Jeffries: Well, Washington is broken, and the American people recognize that. Instead of partisan political battles, the American people want us to tackle issues related to the economy, housing and education that are important to the quality of life of communities. Congress needs to get back to doing the people’s business and stop bickering.
Odyssey: What’s one specific policy issue on which you’ve bucked your party’s consensus?
Rep. Jeffries: I’ve consistently supported education reform efforts such as the availability of charter school in communities where the Public Schools system has traditionally failed our children. Many members of the Democratic Party in New York are anti-charter. I think it is one of the tools that can be utilized to improve high quality education.
Odyssey: In your current position, which vote do you most regret making and why?
Rep. Jeffries: I can’t recall a vote that I have regretted to date, although there is one instance, now that I think about it, where there was a bill on the floor related to eliminating the surplus military equipment program that provided high- tech weaponry to local police departments. I voted to support the continuation of that program in the summer of 2014, prior to the situation in Ferguson occurring. After Ferguson, it became clear that local police departments were receiving military equipment that they weren’t prepared to properly utilize, and that the program was out of control. And with the hindsight of 20/20, having known then what I know now, I would vote to discontinue, or dramatically reform the program.
Odyssey: Since 1965, who was the best president not named Barack Obama or Bill Clinton and why? [The question was asked this way to remove the most likely choices for the Democratic congressman. Republicans Odyssey interviewed were asked the same question, excepting Ronald Reagan.]
Rep. Jeffries: Well, president Lyndon Baines Johnson was an extraordinary American president on domestic issues. He signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights act; he signed into law the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which is responsible for such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and college work study. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but is one of the most significant presidents of the 20th century.
Odyssey: Which interest group or lobby has the most undue influence on Capitol Hill, and why?
Rep. Jeffries: Well, big oil companies have had outside influence on energy policy in America in a way that is damaging to our environment. I’ll leave it at that.
Odyssey: The gap between the rich and poor continues to get bigger. What statistical indicators do you use to analyze this? What is your solution?
Rep. Jeffries: Well, income inequality between the top 10% in this nation and the bottom 20% has grown dramatically since the Great Depression. Many economists have now concluded that the tremendous gap in income and wealth hurts economic productivity, and is something that Congress should come together to fix.
Odyssey: What does the word “equality” mean to you and how do we achieve it as a country?
Rep. Jeffries: Well, opportunity under the law for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, country of origin or place of birth, here in America. The American people don’t want a handout, they want a hand up, and our policies should reflect, providing working families with the opportunity to pursue the American dream.
Odyssey: Finally, if you could have a drink with any non-politician dead or alive, who would it be and what would you drink?
Rep. Jeffries: That’s a great question. A Brooklyn Lager with Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson.