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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Pathfinders: Pramila Jayapal

In 2017, the first Indian-American woman to serve in the United States House of Representatives swore an oath to represent the seventh congressional district of Washington state. Speaker Nancy Pelosi described Pramila Jayapal as “a rising star in the Democratic caucus,” and the description was apt. A former civil rights activist based in Seattle, Jayapal supported expansive immigration policies at a time when a Republican presidential administration called for closed borders and suspicion of outsiders. She was one of several new progressive members of Congress determined to change the status quo in an institution that they viewed as staid and unresponsive to the needs of its people, especially people of color. I discuss Congresswoman Jayapal’s life and career in my forthcoming book, Congressional Pathfinders: First Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History.

She was born on September 21, 1965, in Madras (later renamed Chennai), India, to a Malayali family. After living in Indonesia and Singapore, she immigrated to the United States at age 16 in 1982 so she could attend college. She earned her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and a master of business administration degree from Northwestern University. In 2000, Jayapal became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

She began her professional career in the private sector as a financial analyst at PaineWebber. Jayapal moved on to development projects in Chicago and Thailand before leaving PaineWebber to work in sales and marketing at a medical company. Dissatisfied with her career path, she moved into the public sector in 1991.

She made a name for herself among activists following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when she created an advocacy group, the Hate Free Zone, to register citizens and lobby for immigration reform. The presidential administration of George W. Bush had planned to deport 4,000 Somalis from across the United States until the Hate Free Zone sued to block the deportations. In 2008, the organization changed its name to OneAmerica. Jayapal remained involved until May 2012. For her activism, she earned White House recognition as a “Champion of Change” in 2013.

As she devoted her career to civil rights activism, Jayapal recognized that she could achieve greater progress by working with elected officials. To that end, she served on a mayoral advisory committee in Seattle helping to negotiate an increase in minimum wage for workers in the city. She also served on a search committee that selected Seattle’s first female police chief. These activities were deeply satisfying, but Jayapal soon saw an opportunity to win an election in her own right.

In 2014, Washington State Senator Adam Kline announced that he would not seek reelection in the 37th district. With an endorsement from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Jayapal filed to run for the seat. In the primary election, it was a crowded field--six candidates eventually entered the race--but on August 5, 2014, she won with 51 percent of the vote.

In the fall general election, she faced another Democrat, Louis Watanabe, a business professor, who focused on growing jobs, especially small businesses. He also emphasized his family’s roots in the district. It was to no avail. Jayapal won the election.

As a state senator, Jayapal focused her time and energy on issues near and dear to women. One major initiative was to sponsor legislation, Senate Bill 5863, directing the Washington State Department of Transportation to administer a pre-apprenticeship program for women and people of color. The measure passed into law in July 2015. She also co-sponsored a bill to keep track of police department rape kits.

Like many politically ambitious elected officials, Jayapal was attuned to opportunities for career advancement. Her chance came in January 2016, when long-time U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott of the seventh congressional district announced that he would not seek another term in office. She agreed to run as his successor. Senator Bernie Sanders, a progressive U.S. senator and presidential candidate, endorsed Jayapal.

In the August primary race, she failed to garner a majority of the vote, but she was one of the two top vote-getters, along with State Representative Brady Walkinshaw, another Democrat. (The district was sufficiently liberal so that no Republican sported much of a chance to capture the seat.) For the first time in the history of Washington state, two Democrats contested a congressional seat in a general election. When all the votes were counted, Jayapal had won the race with 56 percent of the vote.

Sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2017, she became a reliable progressive in the conservative Trump era. Jayapal vehemently opposed the incoming administration from her first days in office. When Trump was sworn in, she joined a group of Democratic members of Congress, including the legendary civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, to boycott the inauguration. Lewis deemed Trump to be an “illegitimate president,” and Jayapal endorsed that view. She soon joined the “resistance” against the right-wing president.

Of all the challenges Jayapal faced during her first three years in office, she was most worried about corruption in the Trump administration, especially the president’s lack of accountability. As a businessman and Washington outsider, Trump had campaigned on promises of “draining the swamp” by rooting out innumerable unsavory practices in the insular world of D.C. lobbyists and lawmakers. In Jayapal’s opinion, cronyism, nepotism, and shady dealing in Washington seemed infinitely worse than it had been before Trump’s arrival in 2017. As far as Jayapal was concerned, Trump was the swamp. Accordingly, she and Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland introduced a series of bills, the so-called Trump Transparency Package, designed to compel the president to disclose his conflicts of interest. Although she recognized that the legislation was unlikely to pass--and even less likely to be signed into law--Jayapal believed that it was important to push back against a presidential administration that displayed authoritarian tendencies and unhesitatingly promoted a self-serving agenda based on lies and deceit.

As a leading progressive in Congress, Jayapal stepped into leadership roles despite her relative lack of seniority. She became the vice ranking member of the House Budget Committee. In recognition of her status as a liberal Democrat, Jayapal served as co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus as well as senior whip of the House Democratic Caucus.

Because she was one of the few women of color to join the ranks of a mostly white male institution, Jayapal was guaranteed to generate controversy as well as headlines. On June 28, 2018, she participated in a sit-in outside of the Hart Senate Office Building calling for, among other things, the elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency charged with rounding up illegal aliens. Jayapal and her fellow protesters expressed outrage over the Trump administration’s ham-fisted “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.

Organizers claimed that as many as 2,500 protesters appeared at the Women Disobey event that day. Arriving on the scene, police arrested more than 500 protesters, including Jayapal, for “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding.” She later said that she was “proud to have been arrested” for protesting an “inhumane and cruel” policy. After she paid a $50 fine, prosecutors dismissed the charges.

As of early 2020, Jayapal remained a member of Congress with potentially decades remaining in her political career. She showed no signs of tempering her remarks or her progressive sensibilities. Like other women of color who ascended into the halls of power in the United States early in the twenty-first century, she was determined to change Congress to make it more responsive to historically underrepresented constituencies. But she left nothing to chance. She quickly established a reputation for working diligently and strategically.

“I’m very methodical about what I take on and what I do,” she explained. “I work really hard at a strategy.” After watching Jayapal patiently wear down another legislator, Congressman Joe Kennedy III agreed, paying her an earthy compliment. “You work fucking hard,” he said with more than a hint of admiration in his voice.

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