With her release last week of a statement signed by 30 liberal House members, urging negotiations with Russia over Ukraine, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., learned truth of an adage coined by the great New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”
The timing could not have been worse, coming with Ukraine in the midst of a successful offensive and Vladimir Putin looking for ways to crack the Western Alliance. House Democratic leaders were not told of the release, nor were some members who signed the document last June. The letter came out two weeks before a mid-term election with Democrats defending a tiny House majority.
The Ukraine letter was withdrawn, but had political impacts that will not be forgotten.
Jayapal has cut a very public figure from her first day in Congress. She was an election objector, challenging the counting of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes for Donald Trump. Then-Vice President Joe Biden ruled against the objection. She traveled primary and caucus states as a front-rank Bernie Sanders surrogate in the 2020 presidential campaign. She backed House candidates in other states who became known as “the Squad.”
Jayapal is regularly and lovingly interviewed by MSNBC and CNN news hosts. She has penned op-ed articles for the New York Times on deeply personal matters, an abortion and having a non-binary offspring. She clashed on the House floor with Rep. Don Young, getting an apology after the crusty Alaskan called her “young lady” and said Jayapal didn’t know “a damned thing of what she’s talking about.”
Jayapal has lately hinted at a bid to join the House Democratic leadership. The Congressional Progressive Caucus consists of 95 liberal House members, most of them from super-safe districts. None is safer than Jayapal’s Seattle-centered district. She won reelection to a third term in 2020 by a margin of more than 300,000. So many heads nod in unison at Jayapal’s town meetings that an observer should stock Dramamine.
But the bright lights of notoriety are casting shadows on the fast-rising Jayapal. The left of the Democratic Party has trouble winning elections even in party strongholds. Nor has Jayapal fared well as king maker on her home turf. Jayapal poured resources into the 2020 U.S. House campaign of Beth Doglio in Washington’s 10th District, where a more moderate Democrat, Marilyn Strickland, beat Doglio by a 46,000-vote margin. Jayapal endorsed Lorena Gonzalez for Seattle Mayor and Nikkita Oliver for City Council. Both lost. Despite noisy rallies, with Jayapal as warmup act, Bernie Sanders lost the 2016 “beauty contest” primary to Hillary Clinton. Biden won the 2020 primary, spending virtually nothing in the state.
The U.S. Senate in 2021 passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, funding needed transportation measures across the country. The Congressional Progressive Caucus for months refused to provide votes needed for House passage. CPC was demanding – but did not get – passage on the comprehensive $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan.
Buzzfeed ran a scathing article last year, based on interviews with 14 former staffers, depicting Jayapal’s congressional office as a workplace from hell. It portrayed “a serious discontent between how she talks about workers’ rights and how she treats her own staff.” The result: an overworked, underpaid, upbraided staff with one of the highest turnover rates on Capitol Hill.
Jayapal tossed her staff under the bus, or perhaps a Russian tank with “Z” markings, on the Ukraine letter. While taking “responsibility for this” she claimed the letter was released “without vetting.” Sources on Capitol Hill promptly leaked that Jayapal directed its release, and the letter was accompanied by a statement from Jayapal.
Colleagues who signed the letter were quick to put out that THEY were not consulted on the release, noting the change in Ukraine battlefield conditions since June. “Timing in diplomacy is everything,” tweeted Rep. Sara Jacobs of California. A Washington colleague, Rep. Kim Schrier, described the timing as “crazy” and said: “They shouldn’t have sent it.”
Where does this leave Jayapal? She has likely killed her prospects for a post-election Democratic leadership post. And that’s good news for the party. Assuming Republicans win the House, the Dems will need suburban and exurban districts to take it back. They’ll be hard pressed to do so if loud mouths from the left are the party’s voice in the House.
Jayapal has been a sort of political banyan tree, casting a canopy that shuts off light and attention from colleagues. Anonymous sources told The Washington Post that Jayapal’s ambitions have “often driven her to act unilaterally and insert herself into issues and conversations.”
Alas, we no longer have a Northwest press corps in Washington, D.C. to track the Washington and Oregon delegations. With all the attention Jayapal gets (and enjoys) the contributions of workhorse colleagues are eclipsed. Examples are Sen. Maria Cantwell crafting legislation to revive and expand the country’s microchip manufacturing; the backstage role of Rep. Adam Smith, as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, pushing back against Trump Administration efforts to politicize the Pentagon; Rep. Derek Kilmer working with colleagues to save Puget Sound, Great Lakes, and Chesapeake Bay cleanup money.
The grunt work of Congress requires cooperation and credit-sharing in D.C., plus absorptive listening back home. Jayapal has certainly raised the profile and agenda of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She has paid a price for her high profile in having her Seattle home being stalked.
Is her the profile too high? Years ago, when Newt Gingrich became House Speaker, top singer-turned-politician Rep. Sonny Bono warned his fellow Republican about dangers of celebrityhood, being at the center of attention and getting full of yourself. Gingrich ignored the advice. He was bounced two terms later. Alas, Sonny Bono is not around to advise Jayapal. He skied into a tree near Lake Tahoe and was not wearing a helmet.