Last week, Hakeem Jeffries, a Congressman from New York City, won a competitive race against Congresswoman Barbara Lee, to become the next Democratic House Caucus chair. This is the 5th most powerful House leadership position, and it’s recognized as a good launching pad for Speaker of the House, the top post.
On Friday I published a story for the Intercept about Hakeem Jeffries’s relationship with the Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that helps elect candidates supportive of charter schools. Among other things, the piece looks at DFER’s history supporting Jeffries—he was one of their earliest backed candidates way back in 2006, and later to Congress in 2012—and Jeffries’s record supporting charters in New York.
I reached out to DFER for comment on Jeffries’s win and we included this statement in our story:
Jeffries “embodies the Obama education agenda we support: greater investments in public education; strong standards to ensure our children are ready for the global economy; and diverse, high quality public school options for our parents to choose from,” DFER president Shavar Jeffries told The Intercept. (The two Jeffries are not confirmed blood relatives, but identify as cousins.)
“Alongside the election of reform-supporting governors and state and local officials around the county,” Shavar Jeffries continued, “his ascendancy into greater leadership in the House signals that the Obama reform agenda remains strong.”
Several hours before we published our story I also reached out to Rep. Jeffries’s office with questions. I was instructed to send my questions over email, along with my phone number, to a press assistant. I sent these questions:
Does Hakeem Jeffries intend to continue his relationship with the Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, and advocate for charters and/or education reform policies as caucus chair?
I know in 2012 Hakeem Jeffries turned down independent expenditure funds from StudentsFirstNY when he was running for Congress. Since that race, has the Congressman continued to refuse independent expenditures, and does he have any further comment on this campaign finance issue?
About 15 minutes after sending my email, my cell phone rang from a DC-area number I didn’t recognize. I answered, and the caller asked to speak with Ryan Grim, one of my Intercept editors. I said this was my cell phone, but I could put him in touch with Ryan. I asked how he got my cell number and he said “someone shared it with him.” I asked who was calling, and he wouldn’t identify himself. He soon hung up.
I told Ryan about this odd exchange, and he asked me for the number so he could call them back. Ryan called, and it turned out it was someone named Michael Hardaway, a spokesperson for Hakeem Jeffries. Hardaway was mad that Ryan hadn’t contacted Jeffries’s press shop about a Jeffries-focused article he had published the day before. (But Ryan had interviewed Jeffries himself, who was quoted in the piece.) Time was ticking on my noon deadline, and I hadn’t heard anything back from Jeffries’s office. But I knew they had received my questions, as that is how they got my cell phone number, which they called in search of Ryan.
I then texted and called Hardaway, now knowing that it was his number. I got no response.
We published our story at 12:43 PM on Friday, and noted that a spokesperson “did not respond to questions on Jeffries’s relationship with DFER, his plans for education reform advocacy as caucus chair, and his current views on independent expenditures.”
A little over an hour later, Hardaway called my cell phone. I figured he was calling about my piece, but when I answered he said he was calling to thank me for connecting him with Ryan, and explained he had had issues with Ryan’s story. I asked him if he had concerns or wanted to comment on my story. He said he hadn’t read it yet. I said okay well if you want to comment later today we can update the piece.
He later called me back, I missed his call. I called him back, he missed my call. Finally we connected around 3:45 PM, and Hardaway began talking about the story I published, repeatedly emphasizing that he doesn’t get why it was written or the point of it. He said Jeffries is “absolutely not involved with [DFER] in any capacity” and that they “haven’t given us a dime in two cycles.”
I then emailed him, saying we planned to report what he just told us, and I asked if his office wanted to add anything else. He texted me and accused me of having “no integrity” and claimed our phone call—which he had initiated after I said call back if he wants to comment—was off-the-record. Over the next hour, he continued to send me emails and texts, repeating the accusation that I had “no integrity” and was mischaracterizing him. I repeatedly asked what then is the correct characterization of the Congressman’s relationship with DFER, and he ignored those questions. He then called my phone, and I emailed him:
“Your insults over email and text are not acceptable. I am wary to get on the phone with someone who is speaking to me with such abusive language.
I am still inviting your office to comment for the story on the Congressman's relationship with DFER today. If you want to talk on-the-record about them on the phone, I will call you back immediately. However if you want to continue to insult me, or avoid answering my questions directly, then we will stick to email.”
He didn’t respond. Today I emailed and texted Hardaway again, inviting him to comment on my original questions, and his Friday afternoon comments. He did not respond, so we updated the story at the bottom to include this whole back-and-forth.
There are just a few cardinal rules in journalism, and not publishing things said in off-the-record conversations is one of them. But if you're invited to comment on a story, and you call and proceed to talk without saying "this is off the record" — I will publish any and all newsworthy items.