Pramila Jayapal: Trailblazing Indian American Congresswoman Seeking 3rd Term From Washington’s 7th Congressional District

2 years ago / by Bhargavi Kulkarni

Pramila Jayapal needs no introduction. The trailblazing U.S. Congresswoman, who represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District, made history in 2016, by becoming the first South Asian American woman to be elected to Congress.

In her two terms in the House, the fiery Congresswoman has had several moments where she has demonstrated her grit and integrity. Be it her criticism of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in India, the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir, her 2018 arrest while protesting for immigration reform, or her several rebuttals to her Republican House colleagues during various debates and hearings.

Jayapal, 55, is seeking re-election, and is being challenged by Republican Craig Keller, who reportedly stands no chance against the Congresswoman, who has made a name as a progressive fighter. Washington’s 7th Congressional District encompasses most of Seattle and its surrounding areas. Prior to running for the House, Jayapal represented District 37 in the Washington State Senate from 2014 to 2016.

An early supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, she was endorsed by Sanders for her re-election bid.

A Bold and Honest Progressive

“I am a fighter not for the one percent, but for working men and women; not for austerity, but social security; not for deportations and breaking up families, but building stronger middle class families; not for prisons, but public education, college debt relief and criminal justice reform,” she says on her Facebook page. “My journey from India to Seattle taught me that while our democracy may be broken, it is up to us to fix it,” she says. “In the end, the powerful have their voice – I will be bold, I will be honest and I will demand justice. I will be your voice.”

In Congress, Jayapal has been a leader on immigration, including fighting the Donald Trump administration’s policies of separating children from their parents and crafting legislation to help expand legal immigration to America, according to her profile on her website. She has also championed legislation to address income inequality, such as the $15 minimum wage and expanded collective bargaining rights for workers. She has worked extensively on health care issues as the lead sponsor of the Medicare for All Act bill in the House. She is the author of the College for All Act, which would ensure every American has access to higher education. She has authored other landmark pieces of progressive legislation including the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act and the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. She has also prioritized legislation to transition our economy to 100 percent clean energy and address the crisis of climate justice.

Currently a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she serves as vice chair of the Immigration Subcommittee, and is on the House Education and Labor and Budget committees. She is also the elected co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which represents approximately 40 percent of the entire Democratic caucus; the Immigration Subcommittee chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific Asian Caucus; and a vice chair of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus.

From Chennai to Seattle

She came to the U.S. from India at age 16, and earned her bachelor’s in English literature at Georgetown University. She later earned an MBA at The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Prior to serving in elected office, Jayapal spent 20 years working internationally and domestically in global public health and development, and as an advocate for the rights of women and  immigrants, and for civil and human rights. She spent almost a decade working on global health and development at Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a international nonprofit organization. She spent 12 years as the founder and executive director of OneAmerica, the largest immigration advocacy organization in Washington state and one of the largest in the country.

Her introduction to politics came in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when she founded the Hate Free Zone (which later became OneAmerica) to address the backlash unleashed against immigrants. In previous interviews, Jayapal has said she setthe organization to fight against the discrimination and backlash against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians immediately after 9/11. She said there were moments when she considered running for office, but dropped the idea quickly. But that changed in March 2016, when she realized that running for office would give her the chance to do the right things for the community as well as advocate and organize. She declared her candidacy on March 10…

Born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Jayapal spent her childhood in Jakarta and Singapore, before moving to the U.S. She is married to Steve Williamson, a long-time labor leader and strategist, and is the mother of a gender-nonconforming child Janak, stepson Michael, and a 65-pound labradoodle, Otis.

Resolution on Kashmir

A strong critic of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in India, Jayapal has faced ire from  Indian Americans for her strong stand against human rights violations in Kashmir. She has often castigated the Indian government for the humanitarian crisis there. Last December, she introduced a bipartisan House Resolution with Rep. Steve Watkins (R.-Kansas) to urge India “to preserve religious freedom for all and end communications blockade and mass detentions in Jammu & Kashmir.” A few days later, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who was in Washington, D.C., for the two-plus-two meeting with his diplomatic counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, “abruptly cancelled” a meeting with the leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after they rejected his demands to exclude Jayapal. The Washington Post reported then that the Indian officials informed the committee that Jaishankar would not meet with the lawmakers if the group included Jayapal. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, refused, “and the Indians pulled out.” 

It quoted Jayapal as saying that “this only furthers the idea that the Indian government isn’t willing to listen to any dissent at all,” and arguing that “the seriousness of this moment should’ve been a reason for a conversation, not dictating who’s in the meeting, which seems very petty.”

According to the Post, Jayapal had said the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) that has triggered raging protests and violence across India, “adds a whole level of complexity to India as a secular democracy — one of the great prides of the country.” Analysts said then that Jayapal’s resolution has widened the rift between progressive Democratic lawmakers.

All in the Family

Two years after Jayapal became the first South Asian woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, her older sister, Susheela Jayapal, created history becoming the first South Asian woman to hold an elected county office in Oregon. The 58-year-old won a seat on the nonpartisan Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in Oregon. Her current term ends in 2022. 

“Congratulations to my sister,@SusheelaJayapal, who just became the first #SouthAsian American ever elected in Oregon! She ran an incredible race and won outright with 57% of the vote in Multnomah County, she will be a strong progressive champion for you!” the Washington congresswoman tweeted. Rep. Pramila Jayapal had encouraged her sister to run and helped her with fundraising and endorsements.