State Sen. Pramila Jayapal is about to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Credit: Washington State Senate Democratic Caucus
There wasn’t much for left-leaning Seattle to cling to. In the first 24 hours after the liberal nightmare became a reality, the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warrens of the world had issued only tepid statements. Hillary Clinton had urged her supporters to give him a chance. and President Obama had done the same. It was far from the line-in-the-sand, fist-to-the-table message some were desperate to hear.
So when U.S. Representative-elect Pramila Jayapal stepped before hundreds of people in City Hall on Wednesday, the crowd seemed to lurch forward, as if to cling to her dress to stay afloat. While the words of speakers before her were met with warm appreciation, for Jayapal the cheers rang louder and lingered longer, and the weeping, already smattered through the crowd, seemed to double.
A day earlier she had been a first-time candidate worried about her own race. Now, for an entire city, she’s an antidote to Trump.
In some ways, the entire Making of Pramila Jayapal has been leading up to this moment: In the aftermath of 9/11 she founded Hate Free Zone (now OneAmerica) to combat Islamophobia. She once drove with a busload of undocumented immigrants to Arizona to protest Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his slate of anti-immigrant actions. In the state Senate, she was the only woman of color. And now, she’s the first woman of South Asian descent elected to Congress. She’s made a career out of wading into situations that look well above the pay-grade of a single individual.
In almost every way, Jayapal is the anti-Trump. She’s an immigrant, born in India. She moved to the United States at 16 to go to school and became a citizen in 2000. Her roots are in activism.
More than that, though, she carries herself in a way that is antithetical to Trump. There’s no denying both of their intensity. But while he flails, reacts, goes down tangents and speaks before he thinks (I think of him appearing in Everett and blaming immigrants for African-American unemployment rates, before stopping himself, asking “Is that a true statement?” and then repeating it), every sentence from Jayapal is a complete thought. She’s in total control, which means when she does raise her voice or pound the podium, the moment carries a particular power.
And yet, it wasn’t supposed to be this way for Jayapal. Rather than being a focal point for local activists herself, she thought she might be a steward for the woman at the top. As she joined her supporters Tuesday evening in a brewpub on Capitol Hill — greeted by a marching band, no less — she envisioned many possible election results: A loss or a tie to fellow progressive Brady Walkinshaw or, in the event she did win, going to Congress in a House of Representatives dominated by Republicans and possibly a Senate, too. But in each of those scenarios, Hillary Clinton sat in the Oval Office.
“I thought it might be close,” she says. “I thought we might not know on election night, but it would be relatively clear that Hillary Clinton would be our president. But that was just not the case. … It was a very surreal experience. I didn’t sleep much that night.
“My husband and I were coming down the stairs at 4:30 in the morning or something, and he said, ‘Why does it feel like we’ve lost?’ And I said because the country lost.”
As Donald Trump celebrated victory in the middle of the night, her role flipped and she became much more than a legislator — for those most scared about his presidency, she was becoming a protector.
“We did win,” she says. “It’s a small consolation, but I’ve been amazed at how big and important that consolation has been for so many people. And that’s what makes me humbled.”
By the next morning, people were seeking her out. Her office was receiving hundreds of phone calls and emails. On the street, she was being asked not for handshakes, but hugs.
At a Taylor Shellfish restaurant, a woman sent over a plate of oysters. On the napkin she’d scrawled “Thank you,” later telling Jayapal she didn’t think she could come over in person without crying. And at a Korean restaurant for lunch, the owners wouldn’t let her pay. When Jayapal insisted, they responded, No, just fight for us.
This was all in less than 48 hours.
Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Washington State Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), says her history combating Islamophobia is what makes her election so important right now. “People are very comforted that her voice will have more credibility than the average congresswoman,” he says. “Bans on immigration, surveillance: When those are proposed, we’re hoping for bold lawmakers to stand up and make sure the constitution is protected.”
Jayapal says, “I think it comes from people knowing my work and knowing what I stood for for so long. And knowing that I have never backed down from a fight and I’m not going to back down from this one. I think people take comfort in that and they want to know that someone’s going to fight for them. I take that really seriously.”
But, she adds, “It is a little overwhelming, I’ve got to say. Just the level of deep emotion that people are dealing with and kind of what that responsibility means.”
In the time since the election, we’ve seen an obvious and uncomfortable dance from the left. At once, there is the politicians’ desire to be productive, to cling to straws of cooperation on things like infrastructure, to focus not on the unpredictability of Trump, but the strength of democracy and the systems at its core.
At the same time, for many voters, the statements Donald Trump has made have already corrupted anything close to normalcy. For them, “giving him a chance” or discussing the details of his transition and his first 100 days only normalizes him in a way that is completely at odds with his own behavior. As Leon Wieseltier wrote Sunday in the Washington Post: “Isn’t it rich? The apostle of anger now hopes that we rise above anger. Having employed divisiveness as his primary instrument, the president-elect now implores us to put an end to our divisions. In the name of post-electoral comity, we are supposed to forget what we know.”
Jayapal is not spared from this dance. She is in many ways exactly the person to fill the void felt by many. Her combination of ferocity and stability is just what communities of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people and any other leftward groups still reeling and scared crave. She knows this and promises that, yes, she will fight Trump.
But she’s also not ready to burn the place down. “We can be in opposition to Donald Trump and I will be, make no mistake. But we also have to figure out how we respond,” she says. “We have a duty to not give up, I really believe that. And I understand that not everyone’s in that place yet. But when you think about how this country was built and how we got rid of slavery and who fought to get rid of slavery and how we got voting rights for women … that is what calls out the best of us.”