Pramila Jayapal, Congressional Icarus?


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The Ukraine letter was withdrawn, but had political impacts that will not be forgotten.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.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. I attended the live town hall with Jayapal last spring. I brought up the polling indicating increasing defections of Black, Hispanic and working class voters to the Republican Party and asked what she and other Democrats in leadership were doing about this. Were they polling? Reading polls? Reflecting on why the working class was leaving? Was there a plan? She deflected, and said “you can’t blame progressives or progressive policies, indeed we need to double down and be MORE progressive.”

    Now just a few months later here we are with Patty Murray in a tie with her Republican challenger and Oregon likely to elect a Republican Governor. I do not understand the tenaciousness here, of clinging to policies that are failed and tactics of persuasion that do not work. It’s the liberal funhouse mirror of what Obama ill-advisedly said describing red state steel workers who had lost their jobs and were “clinging to their guns and their bibles.” The path of blind dogma and righteousness isn’t productive on the right OR the left.

  2. I hesitate to use the word, “undisciplined” for Rep. Jayapal, hinting as it does of deep condescension, of a woman not yet ready for prime time. But her release of that infamous letter was such a stunning miscalculation it seems clear she either lacks vital impulse control, or craves attention so badly it muddies her judgment. That she could release that letter without even informing the co-signors! Disturbing, too, was her equally-infamous tactic of blaming staffers — as someone who worked on the Hill for a U.S. Senator, I can state unequivocally that a letter like that does not get released by some staffer overstepping himself/herself, without Jayapal’s knowledge. Again impulsive and vindictive. And yet, the Seattle Times has endorsed her for reelection.

  3. Jayapal and the “Progressive Caucus” are the reason I struggle with still identifying myself as a Democrat. First, they blow up “Build Back Better” by the “everything or nothing” approach – and get nothing. And now they do the same for any – albeit slim – hope of retaining at least one house of Congress.
    When the new House majority terminates the January 6th Committee and begins the “impeachment” process again President Biden, remember who helped deliver us to the point.

  4. Jim, who can forget how King County Democrats endorsed Nicole Thomas Kennedy for Seattle City Attorney in 2021. Untroubled, apparently, by her messages to Seattle police:

    “Property destruction is a moral imperative.”
    “Eat some covid laced shit and quit ur jobs.”

    and, after some officers were injured following rioting at the 12th Police Precinct:

    “Go to college and get a real job.”

    Kennedy later she was being satirical and her remarks were taken out of context, which I don’t believe. Any more than I believe in the tooth fairy.

    It is hard to take King County Democrats seriously after that.

  5. I think a US House member should think first and foremost about the people living in their district and how to make their lives better. Jayapal, and her buddies on “The Squad” are tied up with national and international problems they can’t possibility solve.

    You’d think Rep. Jayapal would be close to 100% focused on housing policy because it’s the number one issue in her district. Leave Ukraine alone…. how about a letter asking for Federal help with homelessness?

    I believe “The Squad” often skips local issues because they do not want to tied to defeat. It’s easier to “rage against the machine” on twitter about issues you have little power over.

  6. And yet, the Seattle Times has endorsed her for reelection.

    And we’ll vote for her, sure. What’s the alternative?

    I’m trying to picture a universe where someone from the same mold as Susan DelBene (chair of the House New Democrat Coalition) sprang up to challenge Jayapal. I’m afraid I can’t imagine it, but I’m not exactly sure why. 7th district is too solidly behind Jayapal’s policy directions? The party local would make it too hard for a challenger? There aren’t any more DelBenes? Maybe all of the above and more, but whatever, next time around it may not be any different.

    • To Donn Cave: the major reason Jayapal can hold her seat for life is that the national funders (including the Bernie mailing list) would pour money into her race, once a reasonable challenge appeared. Also, she would have lots of free TV time on MSNBC. You don’t defeat someone like that. You strategically promote them.

      • To David Brewster: The major reason Jayapal can hold her seat for life is because she represents her constituents more than any candidate from your bougie clique would, as hard as that might be for you to accept.

      • David: A better explanation for Jayapal’s perpetual reelections is her husband is one of the top union leaders around here. DemWa’s leadership always obeys their directives about who holds office.

        • Anton and Ivan: Good point about labor. I recall when Jim McDermott and Brock Adams occupied the 7th District Congressional seat, paying heed to the wishes of Boeing and other financial interests in the city.

          • David: Let’s not forget also that when Brock Adams and Jim McDermott “paid heed to the wishes of Boeing,” they also enjoyed the full-throated support of IAM and SPEEA members. So it’s hardly as if they were catering to financial interests at the expense of labor.

  7. I’m a very liberal Aden, and can’t figure out the “Progressive” agenda! In the last election cycle (not this one) they primaried non Progressives who represented more conservative districts and many incumbents lost their seats and those districts went on to elect Republicans who better represented them than progressives did!
    Ergo, we held a slimmer majority and more have a bigger bill to climb to retain that majority!!!!!

  8. Independent voters now associate the Progressive Caucus with the Democratic Party, because their members have been so outspoken and so successful at remaining in he media spotlight. I believe the swing towards Republicans by voters is in part due to the desire to decrease the power of the Progressive Caucus, and therefore of Democrats, in the House. Redistricting may be a primary reason the Democrats cannot maintain their majority in the House, but the antics of the Progressive Caucus and their leader, Jayapal, are also a significant factor.


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