Seattle shows power and limits of Jayapal's progressives

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Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., listens to a question during an interview Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Seattle. Jayapal's career has rapidly ascended into the top tiers of U.S. politics, bringing with her the progressive street cred she amassed in Seattle and a political sensibility she has decisively wielded in D.C. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

SEATTLE – When U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal returns home to Seattle, the Congressional Progressive Caucus chairwoman always goes for a walk along the Puget Sound.

“Everything feels closed in sometimes in D.C., and so when I come home, I just like to ground myself in that spaciousness,” Jayapal said in a recent interview with The Associated Press during a trip back to the city she represents.

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Jayapal’s ritual is calming at a time her career has rapidly ascended into the top tiers of U.S. politics, showcasing the progressive street cred she amassed in Seattle and a political sensibility she has wielded in the nation's Capitol.

“Some might say clever, some might say sensible," said Aseem Prakash, a University of Washington political science professor. “She has a greater legislative fitness. Smart people realize the limits to power —you should push when you can but you know when you can push no more."

The 56-year-old Jayapal’s trajectory began as a teenage immigrant from India who turned into an investment banker with an MBA, and then a new career path from community organizing to elected office at the state and congressional level. She founded OneAmerica and grew it over a decade into the largest immigration advocacy group in Washington state.

“I am not afraid of numbers. I know how to argue my points. I am used to working in rooms full of people that don’t look like me,” Jayapal said. “I always tell people ... don’t forget the experiences that you don’t like are just as important as the experiences you like.”

As the first Indian-American woman in the U.S. House of Representatives when she was elected in 2016, she said she is grateful to Rep. Barbara Lee of California and feminist icon Gloria Steinem for helping her navigate public office.

She also mentors other women of color in politics, from rising progressive stars like Seattle City Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda to high-profile Congressional colleagues in the so-called six-member “Squad.”

Asked about rumored dissatisfaction with Jayapal’s leadership among these six members of her progressive caucus who voted against the Biden administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill in protest, Jayapal denied there were bad feelings.

“People just always want to try and divide. They always are much more interested in who’s fighting with whom,” Jayapal said. “The Squad has been a fabulous part of the progressive caucus, and there’s really no division there.”

While Jayapal is driving the political agenda of the Democratic Party’s more liberal wing, the latest election results and the work of advocating for the Biden administration’s agenda highlight the challenges of pushing her caucus' members and policies into the mainstream.

It was a show of force for the 95-member progressive House caucus to hold up Biden’s infrastructure bill while demanding support on a larger now-$1.85 trillion proposal to fund new climate and family support initiatives.

The caucus had initially insisted the two proposals be voted together, or not at all, though Jayapal eventually eased up on that demand to help pass the infrastructure bill following a disappointing Election Night for Democrats and progressives around the country.

“You have to be attuned to the changing circumstances,” Jayapal said. “That felt like the right move because there are certain times when you feel like if you continue to hold, you might actually lose leverage.”

Jayapal said she agreed to the first vote once they successfully negotiated a framework for the latter proposal.

Prakash said such political maneuvering leaves open the question of how sustainable progressives' power is, especially with a Republican takeover of the House widely expected from next year’s midterm elections.

“To what extent, when Republicans are setting the agenda, will the demonstration of clout be (seen as) short-sighted? Because they demonstrated their clout, but they undermined the president,” Prakash said. “It was embarrassing.”

Back in Seattle, progressives are also still reeling from the mayoral and City Council races, notably that Jayapal’s endorsed mayoral candidate lost badly against a fellow liberal Democrat. It was a shock that the progressive candidate for mayor, Lorena Gonzalez, lost by double-digits to Bruce Harrell, who in the nonpartisan municipal election is sometimes described as the moderate, centrist or even “more conservative” candidate.

It also marked the third mayoral election in a row where voters rejected the more left-wing candidate, which casts doubt on the reach of the current progressive brand of politics.

If they can’t win big in a famously liberal city like Seattle, where can they?

Chris Vance, a former Washington state Republican Party chairman turned Independent voter who has worked with Jayapal on local issues, said Jayapal is successful because she is both skillful and hardworking, and that she's "very aggressive but not completely over the line” in terms of progressive ideology.

“Even in Washington state, socialism is not an attractive political term,” Vance said. “The really, really far left — I don’t think that has a political future even in Seattle."

Jayapal, meanwhile, said the outcome of a municipal election depends largely on an individual candidate's campaign, and that it’s not unusual for voters to want balance on the local level because, for example, the other Seattle City Council seats are still firmly dominated by progressives.

And there’s the perspective that in a city this left-leaning, every inch counts in terms of how left you are.

“Bruce Harrell would be progressive by most counts — less progressive than Lorena, but more progressive than most Democrats in the country,” Jayapal said.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who co-chairs a national network of local progressives in office called Local Progress, also said candidates regardless of ideology can go in or out of favor in any given election cycle.

But Gym declares that on balance, the progressive movement’s agenda has over the past two decades gained ground, citing once-polarizing issues from same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana to a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave that are now all generally well-accepted by much of the public.

“There’s no question that the issues are mainstream, and I think what’s happening right now is that the candidates who are largely the leaders and definers and movers of these issues are working on how to win bigger,” Gym said. “This continues to be an evolving movement.”