Pramila Jayapal, the representative from Washington State’s Seventh District, an early Bernie Sanders supporter and a longtime advocate for immigrants, ran for Congress in 2016 expecting to join a progressive caucus that would push President Hillary Clinton to the left. Instead, she joined a resistance movement fighting to stop Donald Trump from enacting policies of fathomless cruelty. In her first few months, she’s excelled at that job. “She immediately began showing people what resistance looks like,” recalls Democracy for America’s Robert Cruickshank, who lives in Jayapal’s district. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi calls her “a rising star in the Democratic caucus.”
Indeed, Jayapal is the Anti-Trump, politically and psychologically: A sunny Indian immigrant, she’s a whirlwind of positive, progressive energy. She came to the United States at age 16 to study at Georgetown; did a short stint on Wall Street before getting her MBA at Northwestern; and worked for a while in international development. After the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, Jayapal founded the group Hate Free Zone (later OneAmerica) to promote tolerance and fight for immigrant, civil, and human rights. In 2014, while running for a State Senate seat as a Democrat, she joined a hunger strike sponsored by immigrant- and women’s-rights groups to protest President Obama’s deportation policies. Now, four months into her first term in Congress, Jayapal is already a leader of the Democratic resistance. She’s played a high-profile role supporting Washington State’s challenges to Trump’s Muslim ban, rallying with thousands at Seattle’s airport and working with targeted residents. Trump’s immigrant crackdown, in turn, has raised her national profile. “When Seattle-area residents are being rounded up by ICE or detained at the airport, and Pramila Jayapal fights for them—that’s both local and national,” Cruickshank says. “Seattle sees itself as a national leader, and we want a member of Congress who reflects that.”
Her Republican colleagues have noticed, too. Jayapal tangled with Idaho Representative Raúl Labrador during a House Judiciary Committee hearing after he told her to “learn how to read” when she called Trump’s travel ban a “Muslim ban.” She smacked back at Iowa Representative Steve King for tweeting that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” proudly declaring: “I am ‘somebody else’s baby’ and a proud American.” In March, the progressive fund-raising group Blue America chose her as its first freshman endorsement for 2018. And Bernie Sanders asked her to help him publicly announce his College for All Act, alongside progressive stalwarts Representative Keith Ellison and Senator Elizabeth Warren; Jayapal is the sponsor of the House version.
Perhaps most important, Jayapal is a bridge between the still-feuding Clinton and Sanders wings of the Democratic Party (she worked for Clinton enthusiastically once Sanders left the race). I spoke with her as the divisions were widening again during the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Tour, when Sanders and new DNC chair Tom Perez angered many pro-choice progressives by dismissing concerns about the anti-choice voting record of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello (who ended up losing), even as Sanders questioned whether Democrat Jon Ossoff—the surprise first-place finisher in the primary to succeed Republican Tom Price in Georgia’s Sixth District—was truly a progressive. Jayapal joined the troubled Unity Tour in Salt Lake City in late April and helped to put it back on track with a passionate speech calling on progressives to unite around class, race, and gender. We talked about her compelling plea—first made in August 2015, after Black Lives Matter protesters prevented Sanders from speaking at a rally in Seattle—that folks on the left learn how to “call people in, even as we call them out.”
This interview is based on two recent conversations and has been edited for length and clarity.
The Nation: You expected to enter Congress with a Democratic president. How did your strategy as a new member of Congress have to change?
Jayapal: As soon as the election results came in, we realized we had to be an opposition party, and those of us who had the intention to pull the party to the left would have to do that in the context of the resistance. The fact that the immigration issue was the first thing Trump took aim at was a good thing for me, because it’s what I spent my life working on. It became a place to see what we’ve become as a country, and how overreach can actually serve to bring those of us on the left and Democrats together. The caucus has been united on many things, though cracks are surfacing on foreign policy. But Trump has been a very unifying figure to organize against.
But we’re not only an opposition party; we’re a proposition party. We’re proposing our vision of the future, and as people are rejecting what they see in front of them, they can turn to us.
The Nation: What does it feel like to be part of the resistance as a member of Congress, not as an activist? Are moderate and conservative Democrats feeling the heat?
Jayapal: Oh, they absolutely are. Progressives have been working for this; for moderates and conservatives, there’s a little bit of fear that the left is gaining power, that people’s involvement means they can’t take certain votes in silence. And when there are splits in the caucus, people recognize they will be held accountable. It’s generally very positive for Democrats, but I know there are conservative Democrats who worry about what will happen if they skew toward the base. For Republicans, they’re terrified at the new wave of power they’re seeing in their town halls.
We’ve had a string of sometimes small but important victories: [blocking the GOP’s attempt at] closing the Office of Congressional Ethics; getting Andrew Puzder to drop out as a candidate for secretary of labor; and we really came close to defeating Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. It’s so important when you’re organizing people to have victories that validate your efforts, and we’ve seen a string of things that are validating—much more than I might have expected.
The Nation: You alluded to “cracks” in the caucus, and I assume you’re talking about the reaction to the Syria strike. Is Trump making Democrats realize that we haven’t coalesced around a left-wing foreign policy that unites us?
Jayapal: That’s a really deep question, and I don’t know the answer. There are a group of progressives who are raising the right questions about how much Congress has ceded military action to the president, escalating dramatically after 9/11. You saw some positive [Democratic] reaction to Trump’s strike, but for me it was really clear it was unconstitutional—and I appreciated Tim Kaine coming out clearly and saying so.
The Nation: Yes, he made that case all during the campaign—that we need a new authorization for the use of military force.
Jayapal: Barbara Lee has been making this case since 2001. What I’m arguing now is that we don’t have any comprehensive plan. There’s no strategy around Syria. We are in this place where we’ve become complicit in whatever the best choice seems to be at the moment it was presented. It’s our duty, as Congress, to come up with a plan that includes diplomacy, development, and multilateral coalition-building. It was a strategic mistake for [Democrats] to be divided on this question. It should have been: “This is unconstitutional.”
The Nation: The first time we talked, it looked like the House had defeated Trumpcare. And then it passed—after House Speaker Paul Ryan and the leadership made the bill even crueler, letting states waive the requirement that prevents insurance companies from charging those with pre-existing conditions more for premiums than those without. What happened?
Jayapal: It’s the same unconscionable bill, only worse. They still cut $880 billion out of Medicaid to fund a high-end tax cut. You and I get to go back to the days when being a woman was a pre-existing condition. And they’re lying, saying they’re going to cover everyone with pre-existing conditions with $8 billion [for high-risk pools]. That’s a tiny fund that will cover a tiny percentage of people. We have experience with these private pools in Washington. They don’t work.
The Nation: But Republican House members had a party in the Rose Garden.
Jayapal: Yes, I heard them cheering. Let them cheer all the way back home. I felt on the floor that I was looking at people who forgot why they’re in Congress: to help people. I don’t know how they go back and face anyone in their district.
The Nation: Let’s talk about Georgia’s Sixth District. Jon Ossoff won 48.1 percent of the vote in a suburban district that has been represented by a Republican for 38 years. But because he failed to reach 50 percent of the vote, he’s facing a runoff against the notorious anti-choice conservative Karen Handel. What do you make of that?
Jayapal: It’s an incredibly good sign. This is a seat that’s been faithfully Republican. For Democrats to come out in the way that they did, with their small[-donor] contributions, to back a guy who represents the new face of the Democratic Party, a 30-year-old who is able to speak to the intersections… In his election-night speech, he thanked the women behind his campaign, and it was very moving. I think Jon Ossoff understands the political moment that we’re in.
One of the more empowering things in my district is that we’ve been taking the campaign machine that we’ve built and turning it to local, state, and federal races. We held a phone bank the weekend before the election in GA-06, and we were hoping to have about 30 volunteers. We ended up with over 90 people, and we made over 2,000 phone calls for Ossoff. People are on fire! We’re organizing, again, to work on his campaign from my district.
The Nation: Yet some folks on the left, including Sanders, have suggested he’s not progressive enough.
Jayapal: We have to recognize this is a Republican district, and it’s been one for a long time. We on the left are very good at criticizing people, but we need to build the base to pull people to the left. Districts are really different across the country, but the more that people on the progressive left show power at the ballot box—and reclassify some of the ideas that we’ve called “progressive,” but that are really mainstream ideas, like college for all—the better. This could still be a big win: Do you want Tom Price, or do you want Jon Ossoff? That’s not hard.
The Nation: But it became a big deal for a while, when Sanders campaigned for Heath Mello for mayor of Omaha despite his anti-choice past but questioned Ossoff’s progressive bona fides.
Jayapal: The question is: Who decides what a progressive is? For me, it’s not only about the economy—you’ve got to be progressive on economics, gender, and race. You can’t have a strong economic future if you’re a woman and you can’t plan your family, if you’re black and you’re facing racial discrimination, if you’re an immigrant facing discrimination. Can you be a progressive if you’re anti-immigrant but pro-choice? No! We should have simply pointed to where Mello landed: He is not going to legislate his personal beliefs [on abortion]. That could have been a very easy entry point to this discussion.
The Nation: Why wasn’t it?
Jayapal: [Sighs] A lot of old barriers and divides resurfaced. We’re bringing people along at a lot of different levels. Remember the question that I asked: “How do we call people in, after we’ve called them out?” It hurts me personally, for example, that so many white women voted for Trump. But I’m still going to try to bring them along.
I spent a lot of time pushing back, after the election, on the narrative that this was about social issues versus class. We can’t ignore how tied together these issues are. You can’t get to that baseline of equal economic opportunity if you’re black, if you’re female, right now. The only thing we have to be careful of is: We can’t tear each other down. If we start to divide ourselves now, we’re really lost. It doesn’t mean we can’t disagree about things. But we agree we’re all working toward the same place. That’s when we begin to win.
Editor’s Note: This piece initially referred to Jayapal as a co-sponsor of the House version of the College for All Act. In fact, she is the sponsor. The text has been corrected.