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Opinion | Pramila Jayapal Won’t Let the Biden Presidency Fail



But Jayapal didn’t find the business world fulfilling, and an internship at a nonprofit in Thailand put her on a different path. In her book, she describes visiting Site 2, an enormous refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, in 1989. It was, she said, her “first exposure to the travails, trauma, and the dire situations that cause migration.” Risking her parents’ disappointment, she eventually took a job at a Seattle-based international development nonprofit. Then, after Sept. 11, she began organizing on behalf of immigrants targeted by both bigoted civilians and the federal government, whose agencies regularly harassed innocent Muslims in the name of combating terrorism.

It was this work that brought Jayapal into contact with her congressman, Jim McDermott. He was the first politician she’d ever met, and she recalled that he carried a copy of Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came for the Socialists …” in his jacket pocket. In him, she wrote, “I saw what real leadership in an elected office looked like.”

When Jayapal started thinking of running for office herself, it was with the idea of doing essentially what she’s doing now — forcing the system leftward. “For years, I had believed that if politics is the art of the possible, then our job as activists is to push the boundaries of what is possible, but from the outside,” she wrote. “Why couldn’t that pushing also occur from the platform of an elected office?” In 2014, when she was 49, Jayapal was elected to the Washington State Senate, becoming that chamber’s only woman of color. Two years later, after McDermott announced his retirement from Congress, she won the race to succeed him.

Jayapal brought her decades of organizing experience to the work of fortifying the House Progressive Caucus, which has grown from 78 people in 2017 to 96 today. “When I came into Congress, I was kind of stunned by the lack of foundation for the progressive caucus,” she said, though she credits her predecessors with starting to reform it. “There was really no organization. It was more of a social club.”

When she and Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, took over the caucus’s leadership in 2019, they sought to create a stronger structure, raising dues and hiring more staff. They instituted requirements that members attend meetings and sign on to a certain number of flagship bills.

Jayapal and Pocan professionalized the caucus’s political action committee. “I think when I came in we were raising maybe $300,000 to elect progressive candidates,” she said, referring to the 2016 cycle. In the most recent cycle, they raised $4.4 million. They built up an outside organization, a nonprofit called the Progressive Caucus Center, which does research, develops policy and coordinates with labor and social justice organizations.

She became the caucus’s sole chair in January. The decision to jettison the caucus’s co-chair structure led some anonymous sources to grouse to Politico about a “power grab,” but Pocan insisted that it made the caucus more nimble. With two co-chairs, he said, decision-making could be agonizingly slow: “Every press release had to be approved by two offices.”

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