Q&A with State Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D - Seattle)

Pramila Jayapal currently represents the 37th District in the State Senate. She boasts a long history of advocacy work, as the founder of the Hate Free Zone (now OneAmerica), which has grown to become Washington’s largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization. She finished first in the August primary for the 7th Congressional District race, with more than 40 percent of the vote. 

Q: On primary night, you’re comfortably in first place. What’s going through your mind at that point?

Jayapal: We were just thrilled. We had a good sense that we were going to make it through to the top-two. We had hoped for a lead, but we certainly didn’t expect that kind of lead on primary night, because as you know our ballots, half the ballots come in on election day and a lot of times in races recently that are close you don’t know where things are going to be that day. I think we ended up with 39 percent on the night of election, and we ended up at the end with 42, doubling our closest opponent Brady who had 21 percent, so we were absolutely thrilled. We feel like it’s really a combination of our incredible field program, which we had a thousand volunteers, we knocked on 70,000 doors, we made over 140,000 phone calls, but really it’s about the resonance of the message with voters who want to really know that these issues that are kind of front and center for them, everything from how do we earn a wage that allows us to buy a home or send our kids to college, or how do we get good jobs, how do we really make sure that we’re tackling those very pocketbook issues, but also at the same time standing up for the values that feel very much under attack with a Trump presidency right now.

Q: You look at the primary results, and 40 percent of the people that participated voted for someone that wasn’t moving on to the general. You also have a much bigger electorate in the general, how do you court those voters?

Jayapal: We feel really good about the general election because you know, when you look at the analysis of the numbers, even in, we won just about every legislative district, I think with the exception of the 33rd. We won the 34th, we won the 43rd, and those are the base districts for our opponents. And in Capitol Hill for example, Brady’s home district, I took 50 percent of the vote in the 43rd, he got 29 percent, so we feel very very good about continuing to do what we did before, which is really talking to voters at their homes, listening to what they have to say. Our message is resonating, and we think it’s a total win. We did do some work that tells us that Joe McDermott’s supporters, the majority of those that have decided, 60 percent of those are coming over to me. We’re not taking anything for granted, we’re gonna work really really hard, anybody who knows me knows I don’t take anything for granted, but we feel like we’re in great shape and the general election electorate is generally much younger, will have a lot of women coming out, and those are groups I do incredible well with and overwhelmingly win.

Q: With Joe McDermott finishing in third, what about his campaign and your campaign do you see as similar?

Jayapal: Joe’s big two issues that he kept talking about were Citizen's United and gun reform, and I’ve been a champion on both of those issues. On gun reform, I actually was just looking the other day, I think I have four of the board members who are part of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility have endorsed me, including Cheryl Stumbo, who had initially endorsed Brady and has switched and come over to me. I think it’s because, I have an A-plus rating in the legislature on guns, I sponsored the Child Access Prevention Bill, and have been very involved in really trying to figure out how we build the movement for gun reform, because we’re getting a lot more done at the ballot than we are in the legislature. I think that is a top priority issue for me, and I also have a lot of folks in the 37th that have been affected by gun violence directly. We all do, but it has been a top issue for me and will continue to be. I think, looking at that issue and looking at how Congress members staged a sit in, I think that was interesting because I think that’s really looking at bringing some organizing tactics into Congress and that’s another thing that I’m obviously very strong at, so we’ll continue to look at those kinds of tactics. On Citizens United I’ve also been incredibly strong, not only in the State Senate ... This was before I was running for office, but my first term, I spearheaded the letter that was to our Congressional delegation around overturning Citizens United, and got every single member of the Democratic caucus to sign, almost got one or two Republicans but couldn’t quite get them to do it, but that was a big part of it. I’ve spoken at the WAmend volunteer celebrations and things like that. I’ve endorsed that initiative at the ballot, but I also think it’s not just about overturning Citizens United, because a lot of the problems with campaign finance have been prior to Citizens United. Citizens United made it much worse, but I think we need to make sure we’re going for public financing of election, and we are attacking that in our own way with this campaign because we’re not taking any Corporate PAC contributions, we are funding it entirely through individuals, and we have 40,000 people who have contributed to the campaign with an average contribution of under $25. So we feel like that is an important way, until we get real campaign finance reform, which I’m going to fight for. We also need to look at how do we transition the ways that campaigns run and how do we really make ourselves accountable to regular folks, rather than the wealthiest.

Q: With the top two primary, you have a general race with two progressive democrats. How do you differentiate yourself when you have a lot of relatively similar views with your opponent?

Jayapal: I would say one of the big things that I’m able to do is build movements. That’s what I’ve done on issues like immigration, on minimum wage, I’ve tackled those issues, helped to build a movement around it that really applies the pressure that you need for legislation to happen. It used to be maybe 30-40 years ago you didn’t need that as much. Though I would argue on some issues, like civil rights and famous quotes around, "Make me do it." I think that that is what we need in this country, we need smart legislators who can organize on the inside and on the outside. That’s No. 1. No. 2, I am actually the only person that has had experience working with Congress. I worked on federal immigration reform for 15 years and actually wrote pieces of the bipartisan bill that passed the U.S. Senate with 67 votes, both sides of the aisle. I have a tremendous network of national relationships and partners who have worked with me on issues of immigration, on issues of gender equity, and it’s why I’ve got so many incredible endorsements, including 14 sitting Congress members who have endorsed the campaign, are ready to get to work with me, want to see me win, and know what I stand for. So I think that’s the second piece, and then the third piece is I’m the only one who has worked in a Republican majority. I’ve learned a lot about the sneakiest ways to get things done. Where you don’t get to take credit for what you did, but you still get it done, so delivering to make sure an IB program stayed afloat in the Rainier Valley, that was done through a budget proviso. Making sure that we expanded access for translation interpretation for limited English speaking parents at our schools across the state, that was done through a budget proviso. So there are more than one way to get things done. At the same time, in a Republican-controlled Senate, I was able to get legislation passed that for the first time we’re going to invest in pre-apprenticeship programs, specifically for women and people of color, $5.25 million that will go into that sector to help people get transportation jobs, expanded access to Medicaid, women on Medicaid for contraceptives. I was able to pass a bill around the testing of rape kits, make Washington State the first state to test our rape kits, so I have a lot of experience passing legislation, but also building the movement and speaking out about some of the top issues that are facing the country. The issues that Donald Trump is running on today, this is something that everyone needs to be concerned about, because while it’s a presidential race and it feels like national-level politics, it affects our daily lives, what he’s talking about around immigration, what he’s talking about around choice, what he’s talking about around xenophobia and hatred against different populations. We need somebody who’s ready to stand up and fight against that, and I’m ready to do that as well.

Q: With Jim McDermott retiring, he leaves behind three decades of experience. How do you establish that clout that he built up over time in your first term?

Jayapal: I think that it’s about listening and learning, and about looking for opportunities that you don’t always see when you go in. If you go in thinking "I’m just going to work on these things," you miss all the opportunities that are there. And I found that in the Senate. I ended up working on the Transportation Committee, because I wanted to learn more about transportation and I felt that was a real important committee, but I didn’t know I was going to be working on the legislation I ended up working on on pre-apprenticeships, but when I got there and realized, hey, this is a great opportunity to create jobs and really get folks who have been left out of the sector back into it, that’s an opportunity. When I saw that Medicaid reimbursement rates were very low for women seeking these long-acting reversible contraceptives, that’s an opportunity. So I think a lot of it is about just being really open to what is in front of you, being willing to learn because there’s so many issues that come at you and I think the most effective legislators are the ones who recognize what they don’t know and develop that expertise. I also think you have a vision around key issues that you want to work on, and you build the coalition inside and outside to make those happen. Pushing for a higher minimum wage, for example, was very very important to getting us to the place of being able to put that on the ballot, so we’re still going to get that done through 1433 her in the state, but that comes from my experience working on 15, and I’m going to take that same experience to Congress. A lot of experience on international issues, a lot of experience on immigration, a lot of experience on minimum wage and income inequality, and a lot of experience on gender issues, and so all of those are going to come into play, even as a junior member.

Q: What do you feel you learned in the State Senate that you can take with you to the other Washington?

Jayapal: So much. I mean, a lot about the legislative process and how you can, everybody talks about the big bills you’re going to get done, but a lot of times if you’re willing to not take credit for something and you’re willing to get it done sort of behind the scenes, then you can get a lot done. So that’s No. 1. No. 2, I think, I’ve built incredible relationships across the aisle that I’ve always had the ability to do on immigration, I did it a lot, but I think in the Senate, I think I have a lot of colleagues on the other side of the aisle, even if we don’t agree on many many things, we found things to work on together. So with Sen. King, working on transportation issues, Sen. Pearson, who was my chair of the Parks and Natural Resources Committee, got a lot of respect from him. I worked with folks on voting rights quite extensively, actually. I’ve never been somebody who believes that somebody just isn’t worth talking to just because they disagree. There might be a few people that it’s really difficult to ever breakthrough, but I think most people there is something that you can find, and that’s been the history of my work coming here as an immigrant when I was 16. You don’t have the luxury of writing anybody off, honestly, so it’s kind of built into my DNA to be able to find the things that we can work on together.

Q: What would your first 100 days look like in office?

Jayapal: I’m sure there’s a lot to learn in my first 100 days, but what I am excited about is that Hillary Clinton has that in her first 100 days she wants to pass immigration reform, and obviously there’s nobody that understands that issue, the politics and the policy of it better than me, or has more relationships and networks, so that is very exciting. I also think that college affordability is another area that’s sort of prime to go. You have a Democratic Party platform that is really put forward a bold idea around providing affordable college and free college to families at 125 percent, and if you look at, for example free community college, which was the bill I sponsored in the state senate, that was passed by Tennessee first, so you’ve got Republican and Democratic states ready to take on that issue and I think there’s a lot that could be done on that as well, and then the third one that I think has some potential, though it’s probably not a first 100 days kind of bill, Patty Murray’s minimum wage bill really reflected our minimum wage bill in the state senate, and I think that we worked with her office quite a bit, and I think there’s more and more states around the country are passing increases in the minimum wage, I think that’s another issue that’s ready to go. So those three, but the first 100 days for a brand new junior congressperson is as much about figuring out your committees, really understanding the ropes and really getting there.


Q: You were an early supporter of Bernie Sanders, and he proceeded to pretty substantially win the state in the caucus. What do you think the state showed by its strong support of him during that campaign, and what do you take away from it?

Jayapal: Well I think the state showed that the issues that Bernie was raising, that have made their way into the Democratic Party platform and been embraced by Hillary Clinton are absolutely the issues of everyday working people. College affordability, expanded Social Security, raising the minimum wage, taking on the wealthiest corporations and the tax structure that just doesn’t allow everybody to have a fair share. This idea that somehow this economy is rigged against working people, that I think is a really important set of ideas that has been at the core of the work that I’ve done. We’re very aligned on those things, and I think what Bernie showed is how much support there is for those ideas, that it’s not just a fringe notion that you should raise the minimum wage, but it is actually core to so many people’s existence. And the other thing I think he did was he just inspired people by telling the truth about consistent ideas, and I think he brought a lot of folks into our democracy. We have a lot of overlap with the people that supported Bernie and the people that are supporting me. My track record speaks for itself, people know what I stand for, I’ve been consistent on my values and consistent on the things I’ve worked on and the things I’ve said. I don’t shift around, and I think people know what they’re getting with me. So I’m excited we’ve taken the movement further with Bernie. I think Bernie got some folks started, a lot of those folks are working on my campaign, but we’ve had a lot of folks as well. So we’re just continuing to build the movement, and I think it’s really excited. I’m proud to have supported him, proud to have his support, and proud to be supporting Hillary Clinton now because a lot of what she’s been saying and the party platform that we’ve moved to is absolutely what we all fought for and we won, so that’s really exciting and you know, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure she becomes president and then to implement this party platform.

Q: What do you feel you’ve learned over the course of the campaign so far, going door to door and meeting with voters?

Jayapal: My organizing director is from El Salvador, and he likes to say we’re breaking American culture when we go to people’s doors and talk to them, and I think it’s true. We are breaking this idea of isolationism. I’m a "mean" door-to-door person, I just love doing it, because I really think it’s an unusual opportunity to stand at somebody’s door and have them talk to you and have them give you a slice of their life for three minutes or four minutes, and sometimes tell you some of their deepest challenges. So what I get out of it is really being tied to what is happening on the ground, really being tied to what real people say, feel, think, believe. And the ability to talk to people and educate myself about what their lives are like, and what I, if I win in this seat, what I can do to help and to really make government relevant to people. That is just an incredible privilege, I think, and so I’ve learned about so many issues, listened to so many people who are one health crisis away from bankruptcy, people who work two or three jobs and still aren’t able to buy a house, people who are terrified because their social security is going to be cut and they’re barely existing because they haven’t gotten any Cost of Living Adjustments within their social security payments. There are just so many different pieces that are the texture to policy. Its easy to think about policy or legislation or government as this big thing, but it’s really textured by real people who are affected by that policy or by that legislation, and that’s what I get when I go door to door.

Q: We'll finish with this: In 30 seconds, what is your pitch to voters?

Jayapal: I am a strong, bold progressive who has a history of standing up and building movements to really make progress on some of the critical issues of our time. Things like climate change, things like income inequality, college affordability, expansion of social security and Medicare, and through all of that, really fighting for gender and racial equity, because that’s who I am. I’m not a woman on Monday, an immigrant on Tuesday, a worker on Wednesday, I’m all of those things all of the time. I’m going to be responsive to the voters of this district who are ready to send a bold progressive to Congress, and our first woman in the district, and the first South Asian American woman ever elected. 

For more information on Jayapal's campaign, visit www.pramilaforcongress.com