Seattle congresswoman Pramila Jayapal has many things she'd rather be doing than responding to President Donald Trump. But when he tweeted that four "progressive" Democratic congresswomen should "go back" to their places of origin, Jayapal, who was born in India, wasn't going to travel a quiet, cautious route.
"There are just times when it's personal," said Jayapal, who immigrated to the United States at age 16 to attend Georgetown University.
Although Trump's tweet took particular aim at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (three of whom were actually born in the United States, all four of whom are women of color), the president's racist, anti-immigrant language hit Jayapal, too.
One of only 29 members of Congress who were born abroad, Jayapal tweeted back at the president: "You can only HOPE to be as patriotic as we are." She noted that she and Representative Omar (who was born in Somalia) are both "proud naturalized citizens, making sure America keeps to our ideals." She concluded: "YOU are expert at racism, xenophobia."
Reflecting on the moment later, Jayapal said: "Being told to go back to my country is nothing new for me. That has happened to me in Seattle, multiple times. I've been denied a room because of the color of my skin. I've been threatened with lynching after 9/11. These are not new things to me... but having it come from the White House is disgusting."
This kind of blunt, personal language is typical of the outspoken approach Jayapal has taken during her two terms representing Seattle in Congress. She won the open seat in 2016 after liberal lion Jim McDermott announced his retirement at age 79.
But the original targets of Trump's Twitter rant—the four freshmen congresswomen, known collectively as "the Squad"—are also widely admired politicians who talk in blunt and personal language. They can be even more blunt than Jayapal while also taking strident, uncompromising positions that, when contrasted with Jayapal's positions, highlight the unique space Seattle's congresswoman has staked out for herself.
In the days before Trump's tweet unified the fractious Democratic caucus in outrage, "the Squad" had been loudly feuding with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over Pelosi's dismissive attitude toward the Squad's supposed clout, with Pelosi noting that the Squad was able to deliver only four Democratic votes—their own—as they battled against a $4.5 billion border funding bill they wanted dead.
The Squad didn't like that the border bill sent yet more money to the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and they were unimpressed by the bill's efforts to mandate better treatment for detained migrants along the US-Mexico border. But the bill passed overwhelmingly in the Democrat controlled House, with Jayapal—a longtime champion of immigrant rights—voting with Pelosi, rather than with the Squad.
"Ideologically," Jayapal said, "I'm very much in the same place [as the Squad]."
It would have been "easy" for her to join them on this one, she added, and right in line with other actions she's taken. Jayapal has been arrested protesting Trump's immigration policies, she was the first member of Congress to go inside an ICE facility and talk to asylum-seeking mothers who'd been separated from their children, and she rushed to Sea-Tac Airport to demand answers after Trump's first travel ban took effect not long after he was elected.
But, Jayapal said, "strategically, I'm always trying to figure out what the endgame is."
As cochair of the House Progressive Caucus, Jayapal had already counted the votes and knew the border funding bill was going to pass. She'd also noticed that Latinx Democrats like Veronica Escobar of Texas and Adriano Espaillat of New York were solidly behind the measure. And she'd worked furiously to help modify the bill so that it outlined clear standards for treatment of detained migrants, including children (a first, "but that's where we are," Jayapal said) while also placing an "accountability hammer" over private contractors that run border-detention-related facilities, requiring those contractors to live up to Congress's requirements or lose their government contracts—forever.
"And that was the bill that the Squad voted against," Jayapal said. "Because they didn't want—which I respect—they didn't want any money to go to the border."
Jayapal, on the other hand, was thinking about a longer game, a step-by-step process of getting to a saner immigration policy.
"It is always helpful to have people in multiple places, some saying, 'We gotta blow up the whole thing,' and some not doing that," she explained. "I'm very methodical, and I'm also a bit like water on a rock. I believe in erosion."
Jayapal definitely agrees that Democrats need to inspire voters by taking bold actions, but she also says that sometimes—as with the border funding bill—the realities of a Republican-controlled Senate and White House leave her with a difficult choice between (a) getting nothing done or (b) passing something imperfect while scoring some important, incremental change. In the case of the border bill, Jayapal chose incremental change—and, as she recounted it, got a phone call from Pelosi along the way, during which she convinced the Speaker to add that private contractor "accountability hammer."
Jayapal meets with Pelosi every Wednesday at 5 p.m., along with other leaders of the Democrats' ideological and ethnic caucuses. The Speaker, who's often caricatured by the right as a loony San Francisco liberal, is far more moderate than Jayapal on many issues—from impeachment (which Jayapal supports) to Medicare for All (which Jayapal loudly champions). Asked what she thinks of Pelosi, Jayapal chose her words carefully.
"I think she is a really incredible strategist. I think she's a master in dealing with Trump one-on-one. I think she always wins in those situations."
But where Pelosi might credit moderate voters—and moderate Democratic candidates—with the party taking back control of the House in 2018, Jayapal credits the fire of the resistance and the excitement generated by progressive candidates.
"So we have a different analysis of what brought us the majority," Jayapal said, "and therefore we have a different analysis of what will help us to win in 2020."
That said, Jayapal made clear that "every single day" in Congress, she is reminded of how women—all 102 women now serving in the House—tend to wield power in much different ways than their male counterparts. Women in Congress tend to "have each other's backs" more, she said, and tend to think more about "collective power" and credit sharing.
Jayapal holds Shirley "Unbought and Unbossed" Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, as a role model because Chisholm "came inside the system, but she really pushed hard." Jayapal is trying to do that, but always with the endgame in mind. It's not enough to speak truth to power, stand up, and resist. It's also about taking an accurate measure of the power you have in a given moment, and then charting the smartest path forward.
"Particularly for progressives," Jayapal said, "power has often been seen as a bad thing. But power is not a good or a bad thing in and of itself. It's a question of what you do with power."