Majority Minority Ep. 2: Rep. Jayapal's journey from India to Capitol Hill
Newcomers to Congress often get little attention, but that’s not been the fate of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a freshman Democrat from Washington state who concludes her first 100 days in office on April 13.
Three days after being sworn in on Jan. 3, she made headlines when she objected to the Electoral College results that officially certified President Donald Trump’s election. Vice President Joe Biden prompted cheers when he cut her off, telling Jayapal: “It is over.”
“I knew I was going to be shut down,” Jayapal, 51, of Seattle, said in an interview. “I heard the whole chamber laughing. I heard the Republicans. … It didn’t phase me. There was a point to be made. It energized and mobilized progressives across the country who desperately wanted people in Congress to speak out.”
Two weeks later, she gained notice when she skipped Trump’s inauguration, saying she couldn’t bear to watch after he had “vilified” immigrants, including herself.
And on Jan. 28, when the president’s short-lived travel ban first took effect, Jayapal headed to Sea-Tac International Airport and demanded to meet with customs and border protection officials, banging on the door until someone came out to talk.
In December, the Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, named Jayapal as one of the 10 freshmen to watch in the new Congress.
She has no real power with Republicans in control of Congress, and she ranks only 407th in seniority. The House has 435 members.
Her backers say she has delivered.
“When Democrats in the House have few official levers to use, she’s used the megaphone and organizing potential in an exceptionally effective way, to rally the troops, rally her colleagues, get to demonstrations, get in the media,” said Deepak Bhargava, head of the Center for Community Change, a group that works on immigration and other issues affecting low-income people and minorities.
Republicans have beem unimpressed, comparing her to the congressman she replaced, Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott.
"It doesn't seem that Congresswoman Jayapal has done very much to distinguish herself from the divisive politics of her predecessor,” said Lori Sotelo, chairman of the King County Republican Party.
Last week, Jayapal stood between two of the Senate’s top liberals, Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introducing a bill to make four-year public colleges and universities free for families making up to $125,000 per year and community colleges free for everyone.
“This is personal for me, too,” said Jayapal, the first Indian American woman elected to the House, recalling how she came to the United States at 16 with a couple thousand dollars her parents had saved so she could begin college.
With a long history of fighting for minorities, House Democrats want Jayapal to provide a counter-punch to Trump’s immigration plans, putting her on the judiciary subcommittee that focuses on immigration law.
Jayapal, who backed Sanders’ presidential bid, has taken to calling herself “the anti-Trump” after Crosscut, a digital news site, first described her in November as “an antidote to Trump.”
“Some people have called me the anti-Trump, and I’m so proud,” she said at a town hall meeting in Seattle last month.
Jayapal said she represents “the exact people that Trump is gunning for,” including immigrants, minorities and women. She said Trump “just can’t stop lying” and wants to divide Americans with “xenophobic policies.” She called one of the president’s top advisers, Stephen Bannon, a “white supremacist.” The vice ranking member of the House Budget Committee, she called the White House spending plan “the billionaire’s budget.”
She tweets as much as Trump: When Republicans proposed cuts to Medicaid, Jayapal issued a warning: “Grandma will come home to live with you, with no help.”
Some worried last year that Jayapal would be too focused on national issues if she won the seat.
When the Seattle Times withheld its endorsement from Jayapal, the newspaper described Jayapal in an editorial as an “ideologically-driven candidate ... likely to use the congressional seat from Seattle to mount national-issues campaigns.” After putting up with McDermott and his “wandering interests,” the newspaper said he should be succeeded by a “locally-focused representative.” The paper backed Jayapal’s opponent, former Democratic State Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, who then seized on the issue in his campaign.
“I thought it was a strange characterization,” said Jayapal, a one-term state senator before joining Congress. “I mean, this is the United States Congress. It is a national position. You don’t make a decision on laws that are only for one state.”
Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, dean of the 10-member Washington state House delegation, dismissed the criticism, as well, saying that federal policies on issues such as immigration and education have big effects in Seattle, too.
“I don’t see any reason on Earth why you can’t do both --- why you can’t be very active with your constituents in helping them with their day-to-day needs and also be the advocate she is for more national issues,” Smith said.
Jayapal said she was happy that Washington state was the first to successfully challenge Trump’s travel ban, calling her home state “the moral conscience of the country.”
And she said she was especially glad that she won a seat on the prestigious Judiciary Committee, where she’s already wrangled with Republicans.
She jumped in quickly after Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa ignited a firestorm on Twitter by saying: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Jayapal put out her own tweet, asking King: “What do you mean? I was born in India. I am 'somebody else's baby' and a proud American. So were your ancestors, by the way." She said later that King should should resign from the Judiciary Committee.
Getting assigned to the immigration subcommittee has been a natural fit for Jayapal, a former Wall Street banker who left the profession after realizing she had little interest in it.
When women started getting harassed for wearing hijabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she created the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, now called OneAmerica. Her organization sued the George W. Bush administration over its deportation plans and won, preventing roughly 4,000 Muslims from having to leave the country. In 2013, President Barack Obama honored Jayapal as a national “champion of change.”
Jayapal became a U.S. citizen in 2000, the same year that she and a friend made a late-night stop in Yakima, Washington, as they headed to a writer’s workshop. She said they were denied a hotel room even though they had called just minutes earlier and were told there was an opening.
“The guy looked me up and down and said we don’t have a room for you,” Jayapal said, adding that the treatment was nothing new: “I’ve been told to go back to my country so many times I can’t even count.”
But she said her transition to Congress has gone smoothly, and she’s convinced that progressives are “waking up” and realizing the importance of political involvement after Trump’s win.
“Sometimes when really terrible things happen, something beautiful emerges out of it,” Jayapal said.