Rep. Pramila Jayapal has made a name for herself as an activist and organizer, a background that could help catapult her into a leadership role in the House.
In the 1990s, on a fellowship in her native India, she found solidarity with a rural coalition of mostly female villagers fighting government-backed logging.
A decade later, she participated in a hunger strike in the United States for victims of a deadly 1980s Union Carbide chemical accident in India.
And before she came to Congress, she led an immigrant rights group formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“I’m an organizer,” Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, said in a recent interview with E&E News.
She said she ran for Congress because she did not believe lawmakers were organizing themselves effectively to push their priorities.
“We have a lot more leverage than we sometimes think we do. And we should use it.”
Last fall, she stared down President Joe Biden and House Democratic leaders for several weeks to press them to advance a budget package that contained the most significant climate spending in the nation’s history.
Jayapal used her position as the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus last fall to force House Democratic leaders to repeatedly delay a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
She only rallied her caucus behind the funding for roads, bridges, highways and other projects after getting guarantees from the White House and House leaders that Biden’s signature legislative effort, “Build Back Better,” would still move forward with a bounty of liberal priorities, including record climate spending and environmental justice provisions.
Her effort showed that if the group of nearly 100 progressives stayed united, they have the clout to have a major impact on legislation.
“She kept us together, which is always difficult with any caucus, and was able to influence both timing and content of feedback of ‘Build Back Better,'” said House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
He credits Jayapal with “absolutely” getting CPC priorities on environmental justice added to the House-passed version and shaping the climate portion of the bill that has faced less Senate opposition than other parts of the package.
Now in her third term in Congress, Jayapal, 56, is one of the most influential members of Congress. As the head of CPC, she has led an overhaul of the group, with the goal of making it a more powerful voice for getting its priorities advanced.
She is a frequent guest on cable news and Sunday talk shows, often talking up progressive goals. And in a sign she could be eyeing a leadership post, she has begun steering campaign funds toward vulnerable lawmakers in competitive reelection campaigns.
“She certainly is a leader not just within the Progressive Caucus, but clearly she has become a leader in the caucuswide conversations over the last year. And so I certainly see a bright future for her in whatever leadership form that takes,” said Davis Bates, congressional champions project director for the League of Conservation Voters.
Nevertheless, there are some notes of dissent.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a moderate who is one of two Senate holdouts still delaying action on the House’s “Build Back Better” bill, dismissed Jayapal-led efforts to delay action to force the infrastructure bill and BBB to remain tethered as “inexcusable” and an “ineffective stunt.”
Some on the left, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and five other progressives who opposed the deal, worry she compromised too much in backing a $1.7 trillion “Build Back Better” plan after earlier House versions called for about double that spending.
After being elected co-chair of CPC in 2018, Jayapal put her approach to organizing to the test.
The caucus, founded by then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and about a half-dozen other House members in the early 1990s, had grown to include close to 100 lawmakers. But CPC was often fractious and disorganized without much of a record of working without advocacy groups.
Jayapal teamed up with co-chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), and the two took initial steps in 2019 to expand CPC’s impact. They increased the caucus’ full-time staff from one to five, required caucus members to regularly attend meetings and raised caucus dues. They did not want CPC to be just another caucus lawmakers could list on their websites without showing some commitment.
The most significant changes came before the start of the current Congress.
Jayapal was elected the sole chair of CPC, a move members backed saying the caucus worked best with one leader. She also set a change that would be critical to keeping the caucus united during talks over Build Back Better — requiring its members to back CPC positions at least two-thirds of the time.
Jayapal also began circulating weekly talking points and holding monthly meetings with outside Democratic allies, among them environmental groups, as well as Biden administration officials, including White House infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu.
“We changed the rules of the caucus to build a real unity of purpose, and to build an understanding of what it meant to be engaging in collective action,” said Jayapal, who said a lot of CPC members fought the attendance requirement but said it has made the caucus “incredibly engaged.”
Jayapal credits past CPC leaders, including Grijalva, with shaping many of their ideas on climate, but she was more aggressive in pushing them, including publishing CPC’s Climate Action Plan in 2020. Some of those environmental proposals — including support for communities on the front lines of climate change — would make their way into BBB; while others, like ending tax breaks for fossil fuel companies, would falter after generating pushback.
Jamal Raad, the head of progressive climate group Evergreen Action, said Jayapal has led CPC to “unprecedented levels of influence” over the past year.
Indeed, Jayapal used an online meeting with Evergreen Action activists earlier this year to press for action on “Build Back Better” legislation by March. While the deadline came and went, activists were quick to praise her for pushing the issue even amid the Senate standstill and taking aim at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the bogeyman of the left.
Asked why the West Virginian is blocking BBB, Jayapal said, “He is the owner of a major coal company and he does have a lot of support from that industry, and we know the effects of industry contributions and lobbying on legislators.”
CPC’s next climate push is expected on resiliency legislation. The “Climate Resilience Workforce” bill, introduced by Jayapal earlier this year with more than three-dozen progressive co-sponsors, would create an Office of Climate Resilience in the White House and invest in building and training a workforce to tackle resiliency projects (E&E News PM, Jan. 26).
“That [resiliency] workforce is actually comprised right now, of people like immigrants, people who have been incarcerated, and they’re not really recognized as a legitimate workforce that should be getting the wages and immigration status to be able to continue to do that work,” said Jayapal.
She rolled out her plan with numerous progressive climate groups already on board.
The never-ending saga of the stalled BBB was a topic of discussion for Democrats at their annual retreat in Philadelphia earlier this month. But as the bill has languished, Jayapal has begun pushing for the Biden administration to take unilateral action.
At the retreat, she announced CPC favored a slate of executive actions the Biden administration could take in the absence of legislation, including expanding environmental regulation, prioritizing environmental justice funding and ending tax breaks for fossil fuel production.
It was a move Jayapal has been telegraphing for several months, but it will likely be Democrats’ only recourse if legislation continues to founder. Executive orders give Democrats a possible path for policy victories ahead of elections, offer some early options for the White House if Democrats lose control of Congress in the midterms and could help energize the party’s liberal base by giving them issues they can push in the absence of BBB
Jayapal’s role in negotiations and push to set the party’s agenda have led to speculation that she has an eye on a House leadership post in the next Congress, a subject she has consistently demurred on when asked. In February, POLITICO reported she has started talking to allies about a potential caucuswide run.
One signal Jayapal may run is increased donations to a range of Democratic lawmakers from her two leadership political action committees, Build Our Movement and Medicare for All, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ website OpenSecrets.org. She’s given out roughly $125,000, combined, through both PACs this cycle, including to lawmakers not in CPC who are facing tough elections.
Which post Jayapal would seek remains uncertain, especially with the retirement of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) possible if Democrats lose the House. It could set off a chain reaction of leadership changes.
Jayapal is not seen as likely to replace Pelosi, although several lawmakers and aides said next year’s opening for caucus chair — current Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is term limited — could be a stepping stone for her.
Lawmakers and aides, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, believe she would start with a formidable base of the 97 members in her caucus, many of whom are in safe seats even if there’s a GOP wave this fall.
They said she could face concerns from moderates that she would move the party too far left; some say a lower post in the leadership ranks might be more attainable and improve her image as a cross-party team player.
Grijalva believes Jayapal is now well-positioned to be “seriously considered” once its current leaders retire.
“Does being in the leadership role translate [from] being able to hold together the Progressive Caucus? That’s something we’ll find out,” he added.
Life in Indonesia an influence
Jayapal, the first Indian American woman to serve in Congress, has long shown an interest in environmental issues and activism.
Born in India, Jayapal moved to Indonesia when she was about 4 for her father’s work as an executive for energy giant Esso, the trading name for Exxon Mobil Corp. (Like many progressives, she has refused to accept any campaign donations from fossil fuel companies.)
She said growing up on an island nation already facing the impacts of sea-level rise made her attuned to the power of nature at a young age. She doubts that would have been in the case in the United States, where she argued that only over the past decade have wildfire and flooding become an ongoing concern for most Americans.
Jayapal came to the United States when she was 16 to study at Georgetown University, where she would graduate and then earn an advanced business degree from Northwestern University. She found early success in medical equipment sales, but by the early 1990s sought more fulfilling work and took a job with a nonprofit, where she focused on financing needed to provide medical resources to low-income villages.
During a fellowship in India in 1995, she got one of her first chances to see up close the power of grassroots environmental organizing.
“I was really moved by a lot of the women activists who were saving the forest,” she said of what came to be known as the Chipko movement. “They were refusing to allow trees to be cut down. It was really a civil disobedience action where women went and hugged the trees.”
Following the 9/11 attacks, Jayapal launched the Hate Free Zone, now known as OneAmerica, to promote and protect immigrants. Her work as the executive director of OneAmerica would teach her lessons about partnering with other nonprofits to organize, including registering nearly 30,000 new Americans to vote from 2005-2006.
Diane Wilson, a Texas-based environmentalist and founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, met Jayapal in the late 1990s and would see her as an ally in several efforts in subsequent years. She said she was part of a hunger strike that drove more than 1,000 participants from across the globe to protest a chemical spill in Indian.
“When I later found out she ran for Congress, I was not a bit surprised. She had a wonderful sense about her, just kindness and drive and passion about stuff and was willing to step out and speak out,” said Wilson, who has not spoken to Jayapal in years but keeps a silver bracelet Jayapal once gave her to commemorate their work.
Wilson said she lives near the poverty level and is skeptical of most politicians. But she said Jayapal is an exception. She still gives $5 to her campaign each month.
‘Doesn’t know a damn thing’
Jayapal’s 2016 election, after less than two years in the state Senate, proved to be the leading edge of a wave of progressives who would come after, many a reaction to the election of former President Donald Trump. She emerged as a sharp critic of Trump and a backer of many liberal policies, including launching the House’s United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force.
She also raised her national profile when talking about briefly losing her permanent residency status before she became a U.S. citizen, raising a transgender child and having a medically necessary abortion.
One of Jayapal’s most memorable first-term moments came during a clash with the House’smost senior member, the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
During a floor debate over Young’s amendment aimed at blocking an Interior rule banning hunting on some natural preserves in Alaska, he dismissively called Jayapal a “young lady” and said she “doesn’t know a damn thing about what she is talking” when she opposed him.
Young minutes later apologized. Jayapal accepted and then said on Twitter “to women of color out there: stand strong. Refuse to be patronized or minimized. Let the small guys out there be [intimidated] by you.”
As Jayapal was wrapping up her first term, newly elected Ocasio-Cortez was leading sit-ins with Sunrise Movement activists in Pelosi’s office.
“I wasn’t surprised because that’s what I’d seen. I just was so excited that we were now seeing it in the halls of Congress and really building a much more powerful movement inside Congress that could match the intensity that I’ve already experienced and seen outside of Congress,” recalled Jayapal.
Jayapal was an early supporter of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, although she only backed it after getting progressives to drop a call for the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to draw up the plan. She knew leadership and veteran lawmakers would chafe at taking power away from the traditional authorizing committees like Energy and Commerce.
More recently, she signed onto a pledge, created by progressive environmental groups, calling for lawmakers not to simply back the Green New Deal in principle but sponsor stand-alone bills to get parts of it enacted. They include bills banning new drilling on federal lands and creating a new Civilian Conservation Corps (E&E Daily, March 29).
Ocasio-Cortez, who was one of the six progressive members to vote against the BBB compromise, still sees Jayapal as a force on climate issues.
“She’s really shown leadership not just in decarbonization but also in making sure that we don’t separate the environmental justice from climate elements, and she really understands the integral nature of it,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a leader of the New Democrat Coalition, a group that frequently clashed with CPC and Japayal last fall, said she brings the energy of party activists to negotiations.
“I love to hear what’s on her mind because it represents the thoughts of a lot of people in Congress,” he said.