By Richard Cowan and Moira Warburton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Hakeem Jeffries was unanimously elected on Wednesday to become the Democratic Party's top leader in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in January, making him the first Black American to hold such a high-ranking position in Congress.
The vote by Jeffries' fellow Democrats also marked the rise of a younger generation of leaders in the 435-member House, and the end of the Nancy Pelosi era and control by other Democrats in their 80s.
Jeffries, a 52-year-old New Yorker, will hold the position of House Democratic leader for the 118th Congress that convenes on Jan. 3.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was not surprised that Jeffries, a fellow Brooklynite, was chosen.
Coming from Brooklyn means "you learn how to work with all kinds of different people. You learn how to stand your ground. You learn to not take things personally," Schumer said on Wednesday, adding that Jeffries "exemplifies all these traits."
The two leaders live just blocks apart in adjacent neighborhoods.
Jeffries formally announced his candidacy on Nov. 18, following a decade in the House, pledging to preside over a caucus that would return power to committee members and give junior lawmakers more say in shaping legislation and being rewarded with high-profile positions.
"Our commitment is always to extend the hand of partnership whenever and wherever possible, in order to get things done for everyday Americans," Jeffries said, when asked how he will work with Republicans.
Also elected as part of Jeffries' team are Representative Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts, who won the No. 2 Democratic job, a post known as "whip." Californian Pete Aguilar, 43, and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was elected to Jeffries' current job of Democratic caucus chairman.
Their elections mean that for the first time in either party, the top three party roles are held by women or people of color.
"Together, this new generation of leaders reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our great nation – and they will reinvigorate our Caucus with their new energy, ideas and perspective," Pelosi said in a statement congratulating the trio.
The leadership change for Democrats comes as Republicans are set to take majority control - by a slim margin - of the House as a result of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
Republicans and their leader Kevin McCarthy, who wants to become the next speaker, have put Democrats on notice that they will hit the ground running, launching investigations of administration officials and President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
While they made tackling inflation the centerpiece of their 2022 congressional campaigns, Republicans have since said little about that subject.
OCTOGENARIANS TAKE BACKSEATS
The three House Democratic leadership jobs have been held for two decades by Pelosi, 82, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, and Majority Whip James Clyburn, 82.
They have been under pressure for years to give way to a younger generation. The moment for that came after Republicans won the majority, but without the "red wave" of wins they had expected - a turn of events that buoyed Democrats.
Their agreements to step down meant a smooth transition of power. Outside the closed-door meeting on Wednesday, reporters could hear loud celebrations in the room.
"Hakeem Jeffries spent a fourth of his time praising the GOAT (greatest of all time), Nancy Pelosi," Representative Emanuel Cleaver told reporters afterward, referring to Jeffries' speech to his colleagues before the vote.
Cleaver, an ordained minister, said caucus members "were on their feet, like at church" celebrating the election of Jeffries, "who I call the hip-hop juggernaut." Jeffries is known to be a fan of the music genre and hosts an annual "Hip Hop on the Hill" fundraising event.
(Reporting by Moira Warburton and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)