Where Rep. Pramila Jayapal got her spine

Elaine Thompson/AP
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal smiles during an interview on Nov. 12, 2021, in Seattle. Ms. Jayapal has rapidly ascended into the top tiers of U.S. politics, bringing with her the progressive street cred she amassed in Seattle and a political sensibility she has decisively wielded in Washington, D.C.

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Why did Pramila Jayapal, a congresswoman with less than five years of experience, have the courage (or audacity) to go toe-to-toe with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? In short, because she sees legislating as a moral imperative, rather than a necessarily messy form of sausage-making.  

Representative Jayapal twice held up votes this fall on a bipartisan infrastructure bill until her caucus got assurances that the party’s moderates would be on board with progressive priorities in the Build Back Better Act. The delay left President Joe Biden without wins to tout ahead of key elections in Virginia and New Jersey, or at the recent United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland – a stand some say undermined him and the Democratic Party.

Why We Wrote This

What is the line between courage and audacity? Rep. Pramila Jayapal has been criticized for overplaying her hand, but colleagues say her approach is consistent with a career driven by strong values.

Her defenders, however, say it’s about time progressives began asserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with. And even many moderate Democrats say they respect her for standing on principle.

“She is a very forceful human being. I don’t mean that in an unpleasant or obnoxious way – but she has very strong values and she sticks by those values,” says former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. “If you interact with her for any period of time, you will discover that she has a very strong spine.”

The president of the United States had come to Capitol Hill to try to seal a deal on his domestic agenda before heading to Europe. But progressives and moderate Democrats were at an impasse. 

So Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, marched across the Capitol to meet with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, one of the moderate holdouts, in her basement hideaway. It’s that kind of determination that has helped her quickly become one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. But with less than five years under her belt, she’s still learning to navigate the labyrinth of hallways on the Hill. On the way, an aide accompanying her had to stop and ask a Capitol Police officer for directions.

Representative Jayapal comes across as direct and driven – even if she hasn’t always known exactly where she’s going. Her life arc runs from India to Indonesia, from Wall Street to an MBA at Northwestern to a lonely job crisscrossing the Midwest selling medical supplies from a blue Ford Aerostar. She found her passion in Seattle, where she built the largest immigrant rights organization in Washington state – a path that eventually took her into politics.

Why We Wrote This

What is the line between courage and audacity? Rep. Pramila Jayapal has been criticized for overplaying her hand, but colleagues say her approach is consistent with a career driven by strong values.

Now she’s in the national spotlight, as the leader of a 96-member progressive bloc that’s flexing its political muscle as never before. As the House nears a vote on the president’s signature Build Back Better bill, allies are crediting Ms. Jayapal with bringing a host of longstanding progressive priorities – everything from universal pre-K and paid family leave to expansion of the Affordable Care Act – one step closer to reality.  

“If you keep your eyes on the prize each step of the way, then you are always grounded in what you need to do,” says the congresswoman in a phone interview.

Her vision of legislating as a moral imperative, rather than a necessarily messy form of sausage-making, helps explain why Ms. Jayapal had the courage (or the audacity) to go toe-to-toe with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Without flinching, Ms. Jayapal twice held up votes the speaker had promised on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill until her caucus got assurances that the party’s moderates would be on board with the larger social spending package. The delay left President Biden without a victory to tout ahead of key elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and with no climate change measures to promote at the recent U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland – a stand some say caused unnecessary damage. 

“They sent Biden over there, and he’s standing on stage in Glasgow with his pants down around his ankles,” says a veteran Democrat, who describes Ms. Jayapal as a dangerous combination of ambitious and green. “You never do that to your leader.” 

Susan Walsh/AP
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (center), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with other lawmakers, talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington on Oct. 19, 2021, following their meeting with President Joe Biden. Ms. Jayapal is joined by other Democratic members of the House (from left): Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Barbara Lee of California, and Ritchie Torres of New York.

Her defenders, however, say it’s about time progressives began asserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with. They champion Ms. Jayapal as a strong advocate for women and people of color, who isn’t afraid to use every iota of power she can.

Even many moderate Democrats say they respect her for standing on principle. For better or worse, she’s not the type to bow to authority, seniority, or the status quo.

“She is a very forceful human being. I don’t mean that in an unpleasant or obnoxious way – but she has very strong values and she sticks by those values,” says former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who worked with her on a social justice initiative in the 2000s. “If you interact with her for any period of time, you will discover that she has a very strong spine.”

A fresh start

Sept. 11, 2001, was supposed to be a fresh start for Pramila Jayapal. Recently divorced and struggling to care for a child with persistent health challenges who had been born prematurely at 1 lb., 14 oz., she had just moved into a new home the day before.

Then, in the pre-dawn darkness, a friend called her from the East Coast, alerting her to the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers, as she describes in her 2020 book “Use the Power You Have.” Amid stacks of moving boxes, she hooked up her TV and watched the terrorist attacks unfold. Within 24 hours, immigrants like her were being targeted in hate crimes. 

For the first time since she had flown halfway around the world as an Indian teenager to attend Georgetown University, she felt scared in America, she wrote. But she also felt impelled to do something.

And so, Ms. Jayapal made a fresh start after all – one that was not just about a new life for herself, but for her fellow immigrants. She created an immigrant rights organization called Hate Free Zone, which she later renamed OneAmerica. 

Though her Seattle-based organization was modest in size, she caught the attention of immigrant rights leaders in Washington, D.C. She also developed relationships with labor groups, the business community, and local government leaders in Washington state. She was named to a committee on income inequality that helped Seattle establish a $15 minimum wage, and was tapped to co-chair a commission to find a new Seattle police chief. 

Her fellow chair on that commission was Ron Sims, a former King County executive who went on to serve as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. He calls Ms. Jayapal an incredible listener, with “a memory like the Library of Congress.” Still, when she decided to run for state senate in 2014, Mr. Sims didn’t think she could win.

“You had to pay dues – you had to work campaigns and be mentored for a gazillion years,” he says. “All of a sudden, she said, ‘I’m going to run.’ And people were saying, ‘It’s not your turn.’”

Ms. Jayapal won the election not by leaning on the party machine, but by inventing a new part for it: immigrants who had never voted before.

Two years later, she ran for Congress and won, defeating a fellow progressive state senator who faulted her for a poor record sponsoring legislation. She countered that it was unrealistic to expect that her bills, most of which aimed to help minorities and other disadvantaged people, would be taken up in a GOP-run legislature. 

In January 2017, as Donald Trump prepared to enter the White House, Ms. Jayapal became the first Indian-American woman to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  

Organizing from the inside

As an organizer, Ms. Jayapal expressed cynicism about elected officials, even from her own party, once calling President Obama the nation’s Deporter-in-Chief. So when she decided to run, she wrote in her book, it was to organize from the inside.

After winning a second term in Congress, she became co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus alongside Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. She soon spearheaded reforms aimed at making the bloc more disciplined and influential – including raising dues to hire new staff, requiring members to vote as a bloc when at least two-thirds of the caucus agrees on a position, and consolidating leadership. In January 2021, Ms. Jayapal became the sole chair.

“I am in awe of how well Pramila has done in Congress,” says Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser, who made a similar shift from advocating to legislating. She adds that Congress seems like a far more challenging environment than the state legislature, given the constant leaks and glare. “I think her ability to organize a progressive caucus in the House that stuck together through thick and thin over the last 12 months … that’s a phenomenal accomplishment.”

Ms. Jayapal says the lessons and principles of organizing have indeed been key to her approach in Congress, including building a strong, cohesive team; identifying priorities early; and having clear messaging – always articulating both to herself and others why the caucus is taking a certain position. 

“One thing I have a lot of respect for with Pramila is she’s always clear about where she stands,” says Roxana Norouzi, who just became executive director of OneAmerica after starting as an intern under Ms. Jayapal. “I think that builds trust.” 

Al Drago/Reuters
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona attends a meeting with Representative Jayapal and others (not pictured) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 28, 2021. The Congresswomen have not always seen eye to eye on Democratic priorities.

The Freedom Caucus of the left?

As progressives and moderates butted heads this fall, some Democrats questioned Ms. Jayapal’s decision to hold out for a bigger spending package, essentially telling her, “Something is better than nothing.”

That view may gain more sway if concerns about inflation, which have grown sharper in recent weeks, wind up hindering the bill’s path in the Senate.

Ms. Jayapal responds by saying compromise should come at the end of negotiations – not the beginning. 

“We hadn’t even fought for the entire agenda yet,” she says, crediting her strategy of holding up the infrastructure vote and tying it to the budget bill with jump-starting negotiations between key stakeholders, reaching agreement on a framework, and then getting legislative text.

Still, the extended process has heightened tensions within the party. After the first vote on infrastructure was delayed, lead moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey criticized the progressive bloc for using “Freedom Caucus tactics,” referring to the notoriously disruptive conservative group.

“This far left faction is willing to put the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk,” he said in a statement. “They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk.”

Even some who share Ms. Jayapal’s priorities say her efforts to extract more from moderates may have hurt the party’s overall strategy.

“She’s for the right things. There isn’t a single thing I’ve heard her say she’s for that I’m not for,” says her predecessor, former Rep. Jim McDermott, who served from 1989 to 2016. But he adds, at a time when American democracy is in crisis, Democrats can’t afford to lose the battle at hand in hopes of winning a larger victory that might ultimately elude them.  

“It’s like landing at Normandy in the D-Day invasion,” he says. “You can’t go to Berlin on the first day.”  

At various points in her career, Representative Jayapal has chosen to withhold her troops until they could take “Berlin,” so to speak.

In 2006, when Congress was working to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Ms. Jayapal, then an immigration activist, took “a hard, principled position” against the bill because of conservative provisions it included, such as increased enforcement and surveillance, says Rich Stolz, who was then at the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., and was working with Ms. Jayapal and other leaders on immigration.

The bill, which many saw as the last, best chance at fixing a broken immigration system, ultimately died. Still, Mr. Stolz credits Ms. Jayapal for holding true to her principles. “She was a minority voice that wouldn’t allow simple acceptance of something we were handed at the time.”

At other times, she pushed hard but was willing to accept a compromise in the end. David Rolf, founder of SEIU 775, which represents long-term care workers, and co-chair of the Seattle Income Inequality Advisory Committee, recalls one night when he called Ms. Jayapal to update her about a proposal to phase in a higher minimum wage. 

“‘David – we just can’t take that, we have to push back. There’s no reason McDonald’s shouldn’t go to $15 right now!’” he recalls her telling him. Eventually, the committee agreed to a $15 per hour minimum wage, but phased in over seven years. “She wasn’t willing to say yes to a highly imperfect deal, and that strengthened my hand in negotiating with the business-side counterparts.”

“Principled compromise”

In her current role, Representative Jayapal has faced competing pressures from within and without; the White House, Democratic leaders, and members of her own progressive caucus have at times all been pushing for different things. She is willing to negotiate, but she’s always looking for “principled compromise.”

“Saying you’re at 100, I’m at zero, so we should end up at 50 – that doesn’t really work if you’re talking about kids in cages,” she says. 

Still, she agreed to cut the Build Back Better Act’s price tag from $3.5 trillion to $2.1 trillion – mainly by reducing the duration of many programs, thus preserving its “transformational” nature and leaving the door open for future Congresses to extend them. And she allowed it to be decoupled from the infrastructure bill, overriding the objections of half a dozen members of her caucus who voted no on that bill – despite a written agreement from moderates to support the Build Back Better Act pending a nonpartisan cost estimate.

House Democratic leaders say they expect to pass this second bill before the Thanksgiving recess; then it will have to get through the Senate, where moderate Democratic members have expressed strong skepticism about aspects of the House version of the bill.

Mr. Stolz, who succeeded Ms. Jayapal as OneAmerica’s executive director, says, in the end, she may not be able to deliver all that immigrant rights advocates had hoped for, but he doesn’t expect her to ease up.

“I’ve known her long enough to trust that she also has a plan for what happens [next],” he says. “She’s always thinking ahead.”

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