In the latest edition of the Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index, released in April, Washington state’s 7th Congressional District was given a score of D+33. In the past two presidential elections, it performed an average of 33 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole.
That means Pramila Jayapal represents the 20th most Democratic district in the U.S., at a time when the GOP controls the House, Senate, and White House.
“I would have liked to be serving in a different Congress with a different president,” she said in a recent interview with Pacific Publishing Company. “But we are where we are.”
Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, was sworn in on Jan. 3, replacing longtime Rep. Jim McDermott after 14 terms. Now, 100-plus days into her term, the new Congresswoman said she’s grateful to be working on issues she deeply cares about at a crucial moment in the nation’s history.
“I do feel like we’re in a fight for the soul of our country right now, on so many levels, and for me to be able to have the opportunity to bring everything that I have to that fight including mobilizing and organizing people across the country and in this district to fight for our values is a huge honor,” she said.
Much of the attention the former state senator has received thus far has been on her work on the frontlines of the resistance to many of the early efforts of the Trump administration, including the proposed immigration ban from seven (later six) Muslim-majority countries, and the GOP-led attempt at an Obamacare repeal with the American Health Care Act (or as she referred to it, “TrumpCare").
“It’s easy to get depressed about the things that we’re having to fight, that we thought were settled questions,” she said. “The idea that climate change is real, that science matters, that public education is important, that we should invest in housing and basic services for the most vulnerable in our society. All of those things; I felt like those were settled questions, and there were arguments about how much we should spend, maybe, and how we should come up with the money, but there wasn’t really an argument about those things being important.”
The biggest challenge, she said, is that “it’s an assault on all fronts,” making it difficult for many to keep track of everything at the same time. While some issues, like health care, are much larger and garner attention, smaller changes like the roll back of workplace or environmental regulations slide under the radar.
That said, she’s been happy to see her fellow Democratic members of Congress “hold the line,” on numerous fronts, including immigration.
“I think it’s been really good to see people really coalesce around the idea that we have values as a nation that has historically been built by willing and unwilling immigrants,” she said.
Jayapal also believes Democrats have been unified as a caucus on climate and environmental issues, pushing for the release of the president’s tax returns, and in early budget discussions on the balance between military and non-defense discretionary spending.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jayapal hasn’t found much common ground with the Trump administration.
FiveThirtyEight gives her a “Trump Score” of four percent, noting just one vote of 25 in which she and the president had the same position. That vote was to repeal the current limited federal antitrust immunity for health insurers, with an amendment to the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which passed the House 416-7.
Jayapal does, however, see room to work across the aisle despite the divisive tenor in D.C.
She’s one of 23 co-sponsors, along with Rep. Dave Reichert, of the bipartisan BRIDGE Act, which would give three-year provisional presence to undocumented youth protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order signed by then-president Obama in 2012. She’s also worked with Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on the issue of immigrant victims of domestic violence.
Immigration, surprisingly enough, is one area where Jayapal believes there’s space to come together.
“I think actually there is a lot of room there, in spite of the divisive tenor of the rhetoric,” Jayapal said. “There is an attempt amongst new members, Republican and Democrat, that I am helping to lead around really understanding what has been done around immigration policy.”
The congresswoman also sees potential for collaboration around education, apprenticeships, and infrastructure, three things she ties together because of wide interest “for doing some really creative things in those areas,” along with some pieces of environmental policy like renewable energy technology.
Along with D.C. dialogue, she’s also hearing from some of the 750,000 people she represents. Since March, Jayapal has hosted five town halls throughout the district, and said elected representatives have a duty to be accessible
“I think it’s incredibly important, to me it is the place where we get to talk to each other,” she said. “It’s hard to talk to everybody in the district, but to have public opportunities where people get to come forward, hear from me, what I’m doing there, but also voice their concerns, get information. It’s information flow both ways, and it’s the ultimate engagement of the citizenry and the people you represent, and our democracy, our government.”
To that end, her office has also taken more than 100 cases from constituents needing help with specific issues, from responses from government agencies, to immigration concerns.
“One of the things we’ve really been working hard on is building the ability to respond directly to constituents and their specific issues,” she said.
When asked what the biggest surprise has been of her tenure in the nation’s capital, Jayapal said she’s stunned by the number of bills up for a vote without a hearing, citing the TrumpCare rollout as a key example.
“I actually think it’s undemocratic,” she said.
While the political battles have at times been disheartening, the push back from citizens, and both the diversity of the groups speaking out and the regularity with which people are engaging gives the congresswoman faith.“I feel very hopeful,” she said, “and I feel hopeful because I feel like people across this country are awake in a way that they haven’t been before, and if they thought that politics didn’t actually affect them, or if they thought that their voice was not being heard, that this is a time where they can see that it matters.”