Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on the Possibility of Progressive Legislation in 2021
We'll have to wait for all the votes to be counted, but on Friday afternoon Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal felt confident that she won more votes than any other member of Congress for the second time in a row. "I checked some of the likely ones, and I haven't found a member who has more votes yet," she said over the phone.
This didn't come up on the call, but so far House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled in a little over 280,100 votes this year. Jayapal has earned over 386,300 votes. Just sayin'.
In any event, there's a lot of hot talk about the 2020 election results. Who should we blame credit for the Biden/Harris victory? Which issues may or may not have contributed to Democratic losses down-ballot? And what legislation could possibly emerge from a Biden administration with a split Senate and a bloodied House? As the potential next solo chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I asked Jayapal for her take on the intra-party battle and her plan for what's next.
Before we talk about how progressive Democrats can govern next session, we need to reckon with the results of the election and what they mean in terms of a “mandate.” Conor Lamb told the New York Times, “The American people just showed us in massive numbers, generally, which side of these issues that they are on. They sent us a Republican Senate and a Democratic president; we’re going to have to do things that we can compromise over.” To what extent do you buy that assessment?
My read is we still are a very divided country. You can’t deny that we are. But at the same time, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris really do have a mandate to deliver for working people and the most vulnerable. Remember when we passed the $15 minimum wage, and everyone called us radical and far left for doing that? Well, Florida just passed a $15 minimum wage with a supermajority of votes, and Florida just voted for Donald Trump. Many things called ‘far left’ or ‘radical policies’ are just about honoring the people, and making it so people have the opportunity to work 40 hours a week and still take care of their families, and have health care, and have good union jobs.
Lamb also said “defunding the police” and “banning fracking” are unpopular and unrealistic, and progressives in the Democratic Party shouldn’t support these measures because they’re killing the Democratic majority. The polling evidence seems to support his view: people don’t like the phrase “defund the police” for instance, but they do like police reforms. Where do you fall on adopting the language of movements for progressive policy?
I think that the Black Lives Matter movement and all the movements that took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death were responding to a legacy of discrimination and anti-Blackness in law enforcement, and there is understandable fury in that. And anyone who thinks you should or can control a movement in the streets, which usually erupts as a result of extreme injustice, doesn’t understand movements.
Few members of Congress ran on “defund the police” as a slogan—if any, I’m still looking for any evidence of someone who did. But we know the Republicans will take all kinds of slogans and use them against us. We know socialism was used against Teddy Roosevelt and every president after him. The question is what is our response. What are our values? What are we fighting for?
I’ll tell you the most compelling thing I heard from two people who lost their races. One was Cameron Webb in West Virginia. He said, “Yeah, they spent millions attacking me, claiming I wanted to defund the police.” But what he did was he leaned into the message, and he took it on hard. He’s a Black man, and they got a picture of him kneeling, but he said that was something he felt was very important to do for the history of racism. He got some sheriffs to endorse him, but he also talked openly about racism in this country and the murder of George Floyd. The other was Max Rose in New York. His district is Staten Island. A lot of cops live there. As of this morning, Trump was winning the district by 14 points. The turnout from Trump voters was extremely high, which was not the case in 2018. And he said, “Yeah, I marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, but I also voted for the impeachment of Donald Trump. I don’t regret either of those things. They’re not why I lost this race.” Just like [moderate Democrats] don’t want to be told not to say something or do something, they can’t tell other people who run their districts not to say or do something.
What would you suggest those moderate members do when Republicans target them with these attacks?
Everyone’s giving advice for other peoples’ districts, and I think that’s not something we should do. But I do think in general that leaning into the message is really important. But then the other part is, what is the message that you’re giving to people? He said at the end of the day ‘defund’ was third or fourth on the list of things that people voted for. So he was running on Covid, he was running on economic relief, and he put a lot of time into organizing on the ground.
We need to continue to realize that Trump was in districts one-and-a-half years ago, organizing on the ground. The Trump campaign was sending out flyers in multiple languages long before many Democrats or the Democratic party was. The DCCC did a lot of good new work this time, thanks to many of us who advocated for things like sending out flyers and advertising in different media and in different languages, but we were late to the game. For decades we said we’ve needed to speak to Black voters, to Latina voters, to API voters, but, again, we were late to the game.
We need to invest in year-round organizing. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of. I don’t know how many Members of Congress run a year-round organizing campaign from the day after the election. Most members keep a fundraiser on staff, but they don’t keep an organizer on staff. They don’t continue to organize their volunteers like we do. At the end of the cycle, we trained up 600 of our volunteers, and they made 140,000 phone calls into Pennsylvania on behalf of Biden and Harris. I think there are different ways to build leadership year-round, and we should take advantage of them. We have a platform to organize, and we should use it.
Decisions about police funding mostly happen on the municipal and county level, so what role can Congress play in this conversation about funding the police?
There’s so much more work we can do around decriminalizing people, which is very much tied into law enforcement because they’re the ones arresting people and putting them in jail. So if you’re talking about the criminal justice system, we’re talking about eliminating cash bail and legalizing marijuana across the country. And the way the system works now, people who are ex-felons are barred from everything for life. We have to reduce the number of people going into jails, and when they come out of prisons we have to actually help people get back on their feet.
We also have to shut off the school-to-prison pipeline. I was just talking to the new president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, the first Black woman to lead a major union in the country. She was talking about how we’re putting kids into a system that we know is going to discriminate against them from the very beginning. We’re saying, 'Go into the systemically racist system,' and then we’re saying, 'Oh, how did you end up in jail?' And so we’ve got to fundamentally shift that system and how public education is delivered and who delivers it.
I was also talking to Bishop Barber about poverty this morning. We were talking about how poverty and the lack of opportunity is a driving force—and that’s what the whole defund movement is trying to get at. Why are we putting so much money into law enforcement when we need so much money in these fundamental systems that help people have opportunity? We can increase our spending on critical areas, we can ensure people have health care, education, good living wage jobs. Those are the upstream pieces that will actually allow us to make sure people have opportunity.
Could you give a few realistic examples of legislation that will pass in a 50-50 + Harris senate, and a few that can pass in a 52-48 senate with Republicans in control?
I think $15 minimum wage can pass, given what I said about Florida. I think we could pass a big infrastructure package—a really bold one, even with a split Senate, because it’s very popular across the country. That infrastructure bill could have a lot of green energy and renewable energy pieces to it, but it would also have schools infrastructure and water systems infrastructure.
I believe we can pass some real education pieces. We have to reverse everything that Betsey DeVos has done, and we have several bills that expand funding for public schools.
Administratively, Joe Biden can cancel pieces of college debt, and that would be beneficial for everyone across the country—white, Black, and brown. Just imagine what would happen there in terms of economic stimulus. But I also think we could make two- and four-year college free up to a certain amount. That probably requires a solid majority in the Senate, but maybe we can get some of it with a split Senate.
Do you have much faith in those executive orders happening, given the conservative skew of some of these courts?
I think there are lots of lawyers who look at that stuff, but the thing is—if Mitch McConnell is going to obstruct everything, then Biden should use his administrative powers, because people are hurting across the country. There’s a million new unemployment claims. People don’t have jobs. They don’t have housing—and by the way, we could invest in housing and take on homelessness in a split Senate, too—and so I absolutely think he should do it.
Did you talk to AOC after she said she could just as soon start a homestead than run again? If so, what did you tell her and what did you say? She’s expressing a kind of pessimism about the possibility for necessary progressive change.
I’ve talked to her in the past of course, but I didn’t talk to her about that. Look, I’ve been an organizer for 30 years, and I really believe that the change that we’re seeking is transformative, but because it’s transformative it’s extremely difficult. It takes a while, and I don’t get discouraged easily. And when I do, I think about all the people who fought so long they gave their lives and their families’ lives and just kept going, kept organizing.
A lot of enraged Seattleites are jealous about the power the Freedom caucus wields with Republicans in the House, and they’d like to see the Congressional Progressive Caucus wield power the same way. If you become the sole chair, are you going to wield power in Congress like that?
We hate the Freedom caucus. I totally reject any comparison to the Freedom caucus. We are about the government stepping in to provide opportunity, and the Freedom caucus is about ripping apart government and staring through every lens of cruelty you can imagine. [The Congressional Progressive Caucus] just passed a set of reforms I’m excited about that took a lot of work, and that will help us be a more unified bloc of votes, and make us more member-driven, and give leadership to different parts of the caucus. But recognize—if we don’t have the Senate, then it becomes very difficult to pass things, and then we have to use an inside/outside strategy like the one I was part of when we got Obama to agree to DACA. We may have to be the wind behind the sails that helps Joe Biden and Kamala Harris deliver change through executive action if we can’t do it legislatively.
Rich Smith is The Stranger's associate editor. He writes about politics, books, and performance. You can read his poems at www.richsmithpoetry.com
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