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From Movement Building to Public Office: The Congressional Bid of Pramila Jayapal

Candidate for Congress Pramila Jayapal discusses her activism and how to merge grassroots ethics with politics.

After a two-year stint in the Washington State Senate, Pramila Jayapal is taking her advocacy work and grassroots ethics to the national stage by running for US Congress this November. (Photo: Ronald Woan / Flickr)

Part of the Series

Activists are often told to take their complaints to their elected officials, or better yet, run for office. Pramila Jayapal took that suggestion to heart. As a state senator in Washington, she’s worked for immigrant rights and living wages and against Islamophobia. Now she’s running for Congress in Washington’s 7th District.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

What are the pitfalls of taking “outsider” activism “inside”? Jayapal talked about that and more when we met in New York this September. We met as that city was reacting to the explosion of a bomb in Chelsea, and a police sweep that resulted in the arrest of an Afghan man in New Jersey. Along with the rise of tensions stoked by the Trump campaign, we’re now seeing the highest rates of anti-Muslim violence since 9/11. It seems that today, more than ever, we need activists to consider public office as a viable tool for making change. Jayapal spoke to the merging of grassroots organizing with electoral politics, as well as to her desire to bring the progressive qualities of Washington State to Washington, DC.

Laura Flanders: Pramila, we’re meeting as very strange things are happening in New York. Talk a little bit about this period that we’re in and those years when I think you first came to my attention, soon after 9/11.

Pramila Jayapal: Fifteen years ago I ended up starting what is now called OneAmerica, the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington State. But, it started off as Hate Free Zone, and it was really a response to the hate crimes after 9/11 against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians — the discrimination that was happening on a repeated basis. Within a week, however, what we realized is that this wasn’t just about individual hate crimes against other individuals. It was actually about the Bush administration, civil liberties abuses and illegal detentions, deportations … Arab Muslim men were getting secretly detained. We were fighting a big deportation case. We actually sued the Bush administration successfully and won and stopped around 4,000 deportations across the country of Somalis who were going to be deported.

It was the beginning, I think, of the movement to really understand what happens in those times of hysteria. Certainly not the first time. I’ve always said that fear and patriotism together are the best way to suppress descent. We’ve been standing up. I’ve been standing up for 15 years for the rights and civil liberties of everybody in this country and the diversity that makes the country so great.

What has driven you at this point to decide to run for Congress, which is a very different kettle of fish?

It is — well, I think, for me, after really 25 years of being an activist and an organizer. That work at One America went on. We organized tens of thousands of people for immigration reform. We were working constantly with Congress on immigration reform; on stopping SB1070 and terrible laws that were passed in Arizona and elsewhere.

I realized that I had spent all this time trying to get other people to do the things that we thought that they should do and that there really needed to be more of us in office. That there needed to be more movement activists in office. That it’s not enough just to take a good vote or to stand up against bad things. We really can expect a lot more from utilizing the platform of elected office for organizing.

I decided to run for the state senate in 2014 and I won. I am the only woman of color there. I’m the first South Asian American woman ever elected to a state legislature. I got a lot of things done. I also learned a lot about what the barriers and the challenges are.

Like what?

I think that there is not a lot of organizing on the inside. People really act as individuals. They don’t act as collectives. I’m used to acting in a collective way in the movement.

I think that there are structural ways that the system is set up where you are expected to play a certain role if you’re in a caucus. That makes it very difficult sometimes for people to take on their own caucus members who are not doing the right thing. In my very first year in the state senate, a couple of Democrats in my caucus introduced a bill to roll back all of our payday lending protections that we had implemented a couple of years ago. We have some of the best payday — still not perfect — but we have some of the best restrictions in the country.

I stood up and introduced 87 amendments to kill that bill against a Democratic Caucus member and it was challenging, but we killed it. I think that there are ways in which seniority, hierarchy, the way things are structured [depend] on how much money you give to the caucus. What committees you get.

Yeah. You wrote a piece in The Nation about how you were a state senator not afraid to talk about race. What was your argument?

My argument was that we have to start talking about institutionalized racism. We have to look at the structures and the policies that we’re passing. We have to take it on even when it feels uncomfortable. It’s particularly difficult, I think, for people of color because it always falls to us to talk about race.

You sometimes risk the idea that the only thing you can talk about is race when, in fact, I know a lot about transportation, finance, small business, minimum wage, the economy, jobs … all these different things.

You’re a mom. A woman.

I’m a mom. I’m a woman. I say that actually I am not a woman on Monday, a mother on Tuesday, a worker on Wednesday, and immigrant on Thursday. I’m all of those things all of the time. For me, when I look at any piece of legislation, I think about women, people of color, those who are most disadvantaged. How is it going to affect those people? I think that we need to do that more in office and we need to not be afraid to say the word “race.”

You say the word race or racism and there is a hushed silence and everybody looks at you like, “Uh oh. What’s going to happen now?” On Dr. King’s birthday, I introduce the resolution honoring Dr. Martin Luther King every year in the state senate because I have the most diverse district in the state. This last year, I talked about the killings by police officers of Black and Brown men in particular. Afterwards, there was a whole contingent of African American ministers who came up to me and said, “That is the first time we’ve ever heard that discussed on the floor.” I said, “I understand why because when you start doing that, all of law enforcement comes out. People say ‘Are you against law enforcement?'” You have to do it in a way that allows you to raise the questions, but also recognizes that we’ve got work to do. We can’t shame and blame. We have to bring people into the conversation.

You also introduced resolutions around immigration and welcoming immigrants. That stood as quite a hornet’s nest.

Right. Refugees. It was a resolution to honor Washington State’s historical role in welcoming refugees, going back to the Vietnamese refugees.

I decided it was time for us to be reminded of who we were as a state. I introduced a resolution honoring our role. It was a bipartisan. It talked about the Republican governor who was there when we brought Vietnamese refugees in. It actually was quite beautiful. There was a Republican woman on the other side of the isle who never speaks on resolutions. She comes from eastern Washington, a very conservative district. She got up and, to my great surprise, said, “When I hear Senator Jayapal talking about all of the things that refugees go through to come to this country, I realized that I needed to stand up and talk. My sister is Muslim. I have gone to a mosque for the first time.” It was really quite wonderful. There was a little line in the resolution that said we honor our Muslim families that come. They are our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors.

We passed the resolution, and then we went into our caucuses. Our respective caucuses. We were supposed to be back on the floor for votes. Three and a half hours later we were not voting. It turns out that the Republican Caucus had blown up over the resolution because some people in that caucus thought that I was introducing a resolution to endorse Shari’a because [the resolution included the word] “Muslim” … these are the things that we are fighting all the time.

To bring our audience up to date, you were in a nine-way primary. What happened?

I won with 42 percent of the vote. I doubled my closest opponent who got 21 percent. I won just about every state legislative district within the congressional district. We stand very well poised. We are a “top two” state in Washington, as you know. The top two vote-getters go on, so it’s not a partisan primary. In other words, you don’t have a Republican against a Democrat in the general election. Unfortunately. Otherwise I would be done. But, it is two democrats running against each other for the general, and I feel very good about winning.

Who are you up against?

A guy named Brady Walkinshaw. He is a 31-year-old legislator. We feel like I bring the experience, the confidence, the results, the movement-building track record and really, I’ve been tested to the fire. I think when you go to Congress, you don’t know what’s going to come up. We never knew that 9/11 was going to happen. We don’t know what is right there in front of us. We need people whose values are clear, who have led from that place of deep conviction and generosity and abundance, and also people who are ready to take on issues. Particularly in our district. One of the most progressive districts in the country.

We need somebody who can take the experiments and innovations of Seattle to the United States Congress. I was on the committee to raise the $15 minimum wage. Really proud of that work. I was one of the first leaders on the safe and sick days ordinance that we passed in Seattle. We just passed a scheduling ordinance in Seattle. We are at the forefront of really redefining what the new economy can be. I think that we also are at the forefront of a political transformation.

And fear? The fears you talked about in the beginning?

We don’t see voters having the kind of fears that Donald Trump is trying to stir up as much. We really see people worried about themselves. The extent to which you can help folks understand that we’re all better off when we’re all better off, and remind people of their generational history, because everybody was an immigrant at some time or another except for Native Americans — and African Americans who were brought over unwillingly.

We are fortunate in the 7th congressional district to have a very progressive district where people understand that the values that Donald Trump is putting out there are not their values. The real problem is that we’ve got to take on these big corporate interests. Fossil fuel companies who are blocking climate change. Big banks who are profiting from student loans. Those kinds of things are what they are thinking about. Where’s the opportunity for the average person?

Well, that goes to whatever happens in November at the general election. The presidential election. You’ll be in Congress of course. But, the raw materials [from] which the Trump upsurge has been made will remain.

[What’s important is that] after the election … we’re going to continue to fight for this progressive platform that we’ve laid out. Expanding reproductive rights for everybody. The ability for women to make choices over their own body. Expanded Social Security and Medicare. Scrapping the cap. Fighting for a $15 minimum wage across the country. Making sure that we have affordable child care. Fighting for climate change and taking on the fossil fuel giants. All of that requires building movement. In my belief, it’s not one person that’s going to get it done. It’s all of us.

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