Meet Pramila Jayapal, the Sanders Democrat Who Just Scored A Huge Progressive Victory in Washington
Background: Immigration rights activist and Washington state senator
The Race: U.S. House of Representatives, Washington’s 7th District
When progressive stalwart Jim McDermott retired, a seat opened up in one of the most progressive congressional districts in the country. Of the four candidates seeking the nomination, the India-born Pramila Jayapal is the only one to endorse Bernie Sanders—and she became one of the first candidates in 2016 to be endorsed by Sanders himself. Jayapal, 50, also has been a prominent supporter of socialist Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant.
When announcing her candidacy in January, Jayapal said, “What Congress needs is a progressive voice who is unafraid to take on these powerful interests—who is willing to fight for all Americans, not just the wealthiest 1%.”
Key Endorsements: Washington MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, King County Labor Council, American Federation of Teachers and eight state senate colleagues
Primary: August 2
Update: On August 2 Pramila Jayapal finished first in the Democratic primary and will advance to the general election in November.
Bernie Sanders’ brand of crowdfunded, earnest democratic socialism has galvanized young voters across the country and attracted independent support to the tune of $140 million. With concrete evidence that the nation is ready for progressive candidates, Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal launched her campaign for the 7th District U.S. House seat with a blast at the 1%:
"What Congress needs is a progressive voice who is unafraid to take on these powerful interests—who is willing to fight for all Americans, not just the wealthiest 1%,” Jayapal said in her initial fundraising appeal.
A high-profile backer of socialist Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Jayapal, 49, has a long history of activism and advocacy in Seattle. In addition to establishing Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Jayapal has sponsored legislation to raise the state minimum wage, to provide for two free years of community college tuition and to pre-register teenagers who are receiving their driver licenses to vote. In These Times sat down with Jayapal to talk about her campaign and the future of the Democratic Party.
Why are you running for the U.S. House?
Pramila Jayapal: I am running because I want to be a bold progressive fighter for expanding the middle class and bringing the American dream to everybody. That’s what I’ve been able to have in my life, so I’ve spent the rest of my life really working to make sure that everyone has those opportunities. This is an opportunity for me to go to the U.S. House and use that elected office as a political platform not only to push good progressive legislation, but also to help inspire a new generation of people to get involved with democracy and to really believe that government is here to serve the people.
What are the three most important issues facing America today that should be addressed in the Democratic Party platform, and how are you proposing to address those issues?
Actually I’m going to say four because I can’t bring it down to three. Number one is income equality. We are a country that has always been known for providing opportunities to people. We have lost a lot of that opportunity. Much of it is because the systems are rigged against regular, working families and middle-class folks, so raising the minimum wage has been a huge part of my work for the last 10 years. I was on the committee that helped raise the minimum wage here in Seattle. I introduced a statewide bill to raise the minimum wage in Washington state my first year in the state senate and I really believe that raising the federal minimum wage, while not the answer to everything, addresses a lot of the issues at the very bottom.
The second is around our elders and the crisis of aging in this country. There’s a lot of discussion around cutting Social Security and Medicare, but that is the wrong direction. There are many solutions to how we ensure that Social Security and Medicare are viable for the long term for more people. That includes things like scrapping the cap and making sure that we tax people with higher levels of income.
The third one is around our young people. I do a lot of work with young people and I see that we’re pushing them away from higher education because of the mountains of debt that we’re asking them to take on. In this state, we used to pay 70 percent of the cost of four-year education. Now we pay 30 percent of it and we ask that families bear the burden. What that means is all these young people are going into massive amounts of crippling debt, and we’re taking away access to education for people who don’t have the opportunity to go. I proposed a free community college bill in the state and it set off a really important discussion. I want to continue that at a federal level.
Finally, making sure that we’re not doing damage to our environment. We have to have a planet to pass on to the next generation, and these issues of climate change and climate justice and the disproportionate burdens that communities of color actually bear from our damaging climate is a huge issue.
How have social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and climate change activism influenced your campaign?
They’re huge. I think [Black Lives Matter] has dramatically forced a discussion on institutionalized, structural racism. I’m so inspired by the activism that is spurred on college campuses across the country and the way in which at the core of Alicia [Garza’s] and the co-founders’ vision—it is about race, gender and class. It really is an intersectional movement.
Underlying all the issues I’m working on are the issues of gender and race. Those have always been critical to my path and my career and I’m always going to look at things from that perspective of being a woman of color and actually being the only woman of color in the state senate.
Regarding the climate justice movement, I worked for about 15years to try and bring together the climate change movement and the climate justice movement. They shouldn’t be separate things, but they have been. The climate change movement is largely white and there has been no looking at how we actually get dollars, resources, support to the communities of color who are bearing the disproportionate burden [of climate change].
Bernie Sanders' campaign has galvanized young progressive voters across the country and attracted a lot of independent support. What are the lessons here for the Democrats and for your campaign in particular? What is your campaign doing to bring more people into the political process?
I’m the only person in my race who is a Bernie supporter. It wasn’t an easy decision, because of course I’d love to see a woman in the White House. But I’m supporting Bernie because he has consistently talked about the structural ways in which the economy is rigged against working people. He is willing to take on these huge banks and corporate institutions that have managed to make this system one where regular folks can’t succeed. He’s got a lot more work to do, but fundamentally he’s willing to take on the systems that exist—whether it’s private prisons or Wall Street banks or the Koch brothers. He’s willing to talk about how, fundamentally, the system is broken.
Democrats are learning that we have to stand up for regular folks. That means that we have to overturn Citizens United and have public financing of campaigns so candidates don’t have to raise these ridiculous amounts of money that then makes them beholden to these corporate special interests. He gets that the regular person doesn’t feel like they can make it.
In my campaign, I say this isn’t about electing me, it’s about electing we. We’re all going to Congress together. We’ve got to have a movement behind us to create political space for policy change to happen.
Regardless of what happens with the nomination, this is good for the party, for people to see someone willing to speak the truth and willing to call these things out. We have to elect people that are doing that.
On the subject of the Democratic Party, Democrats have lost their majorities in both the House and Senate. What do you think the Democratic Party needs to do to gain them back?
You have to be willing to stand up for regular folks, and that means taking on some people who may be big Democratic Party donors. The message that we’re all better off if we’re all better off is a really strong message, but we have to be willing to take on the systems that stop that from happening. If Democrats want to win back the majority, then they need to have a message that really resonates for everyday folks.
They’ve got to be willing to take on race and racism in much more real and deep ways. I’m the only woman of color in the state senate and I know that the perspective that I bring is far different than what is there. I got the highest score on the racial justice score card of any legislator in the state—I bring that through my experiences. Democrats should be willing to shake up the party hierarchy to elect more people of color and more people that represent the community that now is the Democratic Party.
A lot of the topics that have come up during this election have to deal with the remnants of the New Deal: Social Security, Medicare. What does the legacy of the New Deal mean for Democrats in 2016, and how can the Democratic Party best defend the values of the New Deal?
This is about the rejuvenation of America, and that’s what the New Deal was. We’re talking about a reinvestment in the people. That doesn’t mean just the top 1 percent. The idea that we would expand the middle class and lift people up out of poverty is something that seems like it should be so American, but if you look at all the statistics, we’ve lost union density in this country. Working people don’t have democracy in the workplace. We’ve gone from an investment in education, which we know is the core building block of the future, to debt, which only benefits the corporations that hold the debt.
All those things are a systematic disinvestment in the people that make up America. What we’re talking about now is a systematic reinvestment in the promise of what we can do together.
Continuing with the New Deal, it was also one of the biggest wealth creating packages of legislation in the history of the United States, but people of color, especially black people, were left out of it. How should the Democratic Party grapple with that specific legacy?
I actually believe in reparations. When I talk about institutional racism, it’s not institutional racism only created by Republicans. Democrats have been in power and some things, including pieces of the New Deal, pieces of housing programs and other programs, in their own ways led to further segregation of populations.
We are going back to thinking about equity, not equality. This is about getting people to the same starting line, which we’re not at. That’s the argument I made in getting $5.25 million into transportation pre-apprenticeship programs for women and people of color. You look at housing and the way in which we think housing deals of the 1960s were good for people. They were for a lot of people, but for many folks of color, that is not what happened. We have to be thinking about equity as we go about it, not equality. This is not about giving people the same opportunities. We have to get people to the starting line first.
What stands in the way of Sanders supporters and Hillary supporters working together?
Trump and Cruz and all those Republicans are going to do us a great favor. Against those guys, it becomes clear that there is a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I’m a Bernie supporter, but if Bernie doesn’t make it, I will absolutely throw my support behind Hillary because there’s a massive difference between her and any of those Republican candidates.
Both of them will be grown-ups when it comes to the final nomination—the one that doesn’t get it will throw their support behind the other and we will see people unite. We need bridges between the two who are going to be able to talk about what is really important here and how we both unite but lovingly push each other to be better. It means subsuming who we really wanted to be the number one candidate and throwing our support behind the other. Because a Trump or Cruz presidency would be disastrous.
Who do you consider your strongest opponent for the House seat and what sets you apart from them?
There are two strong opponents. Joe McDermott and Brady Walkinshaw both are good progressive Democrats. What sets me apart from them is I’m a movement builder. I’m not a politician’s politician. Right after 9/11, I started what ended up being the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the state. We sued President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for the deportation of 4,000 Somalis across the country. We stood up to that government in a very difficult time when everyone was being super patriotic. We stood up and said no, this is not a time to abuse the liberties of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians.
I did the same thing in standing up against the war in Iraq in 2003—and the anti-war movement is often very white. Because of our work, we turned it into “stop the war in Iraq, stop the war on immigrants,” and had 50,000 people out as part of a big coalition. I have my chops in organizing and I know how to create political space through movement building.
I’m the only candidate that’s worked on the federal level, on immigration reform, domestic violence and sexual assault. And I’m the only candidate who has served as a minority in the state senate. I served in a Republic majority senate and it is a whole different thing—you have to be very creative about what you do.
The only reason I got into politics was because I believed it was another platform for organizing and that’s what I want to do with the congressional campaign. We’ve brought in thousands of leaders, young people and people of color and women who never saw themselves as part of democracy. We’re going to build a movement that’s going to be way more than me.
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