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Pramila Jayapal’s Vision of Power

Can the progressive congresswoman transform the left's unruly energy into legislative victories?

Photo illustration by Emily Haasch (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

In July, in the midst of messy negotiations to send billions in emergency funding to the border, a fight over the future of the Democratic Party bubbled into view. For months, Democrats had been demanding more robust protections for the children in overcrowded detention centers, but, cornered by moderate Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suddenly backed down. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including the four freshman congresswomen who make up the Squad, were outraged. Mark Pocan called moderates the “Child Abuse Caucus,” and House leadership fired back, tweeting an insult at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff.

By the following week, the fight had largely subsided. Behind the scenes, Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who, along with Pocan, chairs the Progressive Caucus, had reached out to Ocasio-Cortez and House Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries. The tweets were deleted, and an uneasy truce was called.

Jayapal often works to balance the needs and demands of House leadership with those of her own caucus. Unlike some members of the CPC, Jayapal doesn’t want to dismantle the system; she wants to reconstruct it to work for the people left out of the political process. That transformation might require compromise; it might not. She spends her time figuring out when to fight and when to hold her fire.

She didn’t put it to me this way, however, when we spoke in July. Instead, she talked about “power maps,” a term she learned from her years as an activist. “I’m very methodical about what I take on and what I do,” she told me. “I work really hard at a strategy.” Determining where power is, how to build it, and how to spread it around has been the work of her life.

Jayapal was born in India, but her family moved to Indonesia when she was four. She went to Georgetown University, where she hung a poster of the Taj Mahal on her wall, a quick answer to, but where are you from. After college, she went to work as a financial analyst, before moving into public health. In 1995, she spent two years in India with the Institute of Current World Affairs and later published a book about the experience. It concludes with Jayapal, in Seattle, becoming an American citizen. “In understanding India’s influence on me, I no longer needed to try so hard to maintain it,” she wrote. “I no longer needed to prove anything.”

After the planes hit the Twin Towers, Jayapal decided to establish an advocacy organization for immigrant groups. It registered new Americans to vote and sued the Bush administration to stop 4,000 Somalis from being deported, bold moves at a time when many Democrats supported measures to detain, question, and deport immigrants suspected of terrorist activity. In 2014, she was elected to the Washington state Senate, and in 2016, to Congress.

I first noticed Jayapal in 2017; she was the one person in either Congress or the White House I’d seen comment on the repression of Muslims and other minorities in India. She kept my attention by doing what I, personally, was not used to seeing members of Congress do. In her first term, she was arrested on Capitol Hill for protesting Trump’s immigration policies. This could have been a politically calculated performance, for all I knew, but there was a boldness to it, a breaking with the way things are done.

Shortly after the midterms, Jayapal was chosen to join Pocan as the new chair of the Progressive Caucus. As an activist, a woman, and an immigrant, she was a strong candidate. In her first public statement, she chose her words carefully; she was committed, she wrote, to a “bold and strategic” caucus. For Jayapal, those two ideas—boldness and strategy—don’t have to be in conflict.

“For me, it’s always trying to think down the road a little bit,” she told me. “What am I going to get out of this? What is the endgame here?” To begin, she engineered a way to put such rising stars as California’s Katie Porter on key committees. “Political power is built,” Jayapal said. “It’s built through discipline and procedures, but it’s also built through structures.” She has raised the dues members pay to belong in the caucus, added staff, and built a stronger whip operation to better inform her members, forcing them to act as one. (The whip operation, she acknowledged, still isn’t operating as it should.)

“When I came in here, I was kind of stunned at the lack of institutionalized support for progressive ideas and policies,” she said. The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, which is meant to connect grassroots activists to the Hill, and the CPC Action Fund, the caucus’s 501(c)4, “didn’t exist.”* They do now. She has raised $2.5 million for the two groups. Last year, she insisted that the fund poll progressive priorities in at least 30 swing districts. (This, oddly, had never been done before.) Legislators, she said, are told that to embrace an issue like socialized medicine is political suicide; her job is to convince them that it isn’t.

Each week, she has a list of members she lobbies to support Medicare for All, a bill she wrote. (Once, she told me, Representative Joe Kennedy III watched her wearing down one member, turned to her, and said, “You work fucking hard.”) In January, less than three months after her election as co-chair, she convinced Pelosi to hold hearings on Medicare for All for the first time since a version of the bill was introduced in 2003, but this concession came at a price. Jayapal lent her support to the House Rules package, which included a controversial “pay-go” provision mandating all new spending be offset by cuts. After outcry from members of her own caucus, Jayapal sided with the dissenters, but she still believes “you really need to organize on the inside as well as the outside.” Her comments could be read as a critique of the Squad, but Jayapal was quick to say that that wasn’t her intention. She and Ocasio-Cortez are “pretty close,” Jayapal told me; they both want to make elected officials more connected to those they represent.

In India, she wrote in her book, she felt “rooted” by her networks, by the people she knew. “In the United States, I find I have to work much harder for that sense of rootedness.” For Jayapal, good politics gives people that sense that they are rooted, that they belong. Her job is to provide the maps to get them there.

* Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the CPC Action Fund the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s PAC. In fact, it is a 501(c)4 organization.