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Pramila Jayapal on her path to Congress and creating political change

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, was elected to Congress in 2016. She is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has become a leader in pushing the party on issues such as Medicare for All. Now Jayapal has a new book out, titled “Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change.” She joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, was elected to Congress in 2016. She's the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has become a leader in pushing the party on issues like Medicare for all.

    Her book "Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman's Guide to Politics and Political Change" is out this week.

    And, Congresswoman Jayapal joins us now.

    Thank you very much. Congratulations on the book.

    This is the story of how you grew up in this accomplished Indian family. You came from Indonesia to the United States to go to college. And very early on, you started this search, as you put it, for your identity. You wanted to stop living in the hyphen, I think, is how you wrote it.

    What did you mean by that?

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.:

    Well, Judy, first of all, thank you so much for having me.

    I came to this country when I was 16 years old by myself, and it was really because my parents took everything they had, and they used it to send me here to this land of opportunity. And I kept struggling to figure out, am I Indian, am I American?

    And I stayed here for 18 years before getting my citizenship. And I think that, when you travel from one part of the country — one part of the world to another part of the world, you are in that limbo state. That is the hyphen that I talk about.

    Indian-American is the hyphen, Latino-American, African-American. We all bring with us different pieces, whatever the means is that we have come to this country. And I think immigrants today exemplify that search for identity, search for meaning, but also the striving to bring everything that we have to bear to this new country that we call home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And your journey, as you describe it, you worked in the nonprofit arena. You worked in finance on Wall Street.

    You — and you came to a point where you realized, as you said, it wasn't enough to be on the outside. You wanted to be on the inside fighting for what you believe.

    But you clearly think it's tougher for a person of color, I mean, hence the title of the book, A Brown Woman's Guide to Politics."

    How is it different? Give an example.

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal:

    Well, first of all, you can just look at numbers.

    I'm the first South Asian-American woman ever to serve in Congress. I am also one out of 14 immigrants out of 535 naturalized now serving. And, you know, if you look at the history of Congress, over 11,000 people have served. There have been only been 79 women of color who have ever served in Congress. And so just that tells you the barriers that exist.

    But when you get here — and it's difficult enough getting here, the fund-raising, the way the system works, the lack of leadership ladders, until fairly recently, I would say, but, also, once you get here, this is a very male, very white institution.

    It is getting on in age in many ways, and we have made a big difference over the last four years that I have been here. But a lot of the structures are still built for a certain kind of power, and they are built with institutional racism and sexism built into the operation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you have taken on a very visible role.

    Quickly — as I mentioned, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus — the issues are coming thick and fast. One I want to ask you about is police reform. Seattle, which you represent, we have seen protesters set up what they have called an autonomous zone. They pushed out the police for a few weeks. It was just today, in fact, that police were able to break that up peacefully, but two people died in the course of these last few weeks.

    You sounded sympathetic to what these protesters were trying to do. On balance, did they accomplish something useful, do you think?

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal:

    I am sympathetic to the whole idea of protest and dissent. It is a fundamental constitutional right. And it is absolutely critical and urgent in this moment, as we watched George Floyd murdered.

    And so I think that what has emerged over the last several weeks should be, again, a lesson for us in Seattle, as well as across the country, that the kind of militaristic response that happened immediately after those protesters started going out was, in fact, the very thing that protesters were protesting.

    So, I hope that, as we go forward, that the city leadership, the city council, all of us at the federal level, really all of us in elected office, as well as everybody who's fighting for justice, continues that fight peacefully, nonviolently, but urgently, because that is what we must do if we are to move forward as a country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, finally, a question about the presidential race.

    You initially were very much with Bernie Sanders' campaign for him in April. You did, after Bernie Sanders dropped out, endorse Joe Biden.

    Are you concerned? I have read what you have said, and you have expressed concern that he may not be progressive enough to excite younger voters, progressive voters.

    Do you seriously believe that these are voters who would vote for Donald Trump over Joe Biden?

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal:

    No, I don't think that they would vote for Donald Trump, but that has not always been our problem with our base.

    The problem has always been the base feels unheard, un-reached-out-to, uninspired by candidates who run in various elections, including as president.

    And so I think that one of the things that we have to do — and I talk about this in this book — is, we have to actually speak to our base. We have to talk to them with ideas that inspire young people and folks of color, because they won't vote for Donald Trump. I really don't think that will happen.

    But they will potentially sit out if they're not inspired. There are a lot of reasons why these voters are disenfranchised to start with, and we don't have time to go into them. But what I would say is any Democratic president has to understand that we need these voters.

    We need our base to be with us. We can't just go to the swing voter and forget about our base.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, thank you very much.

    The book is "Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman's Guide to Politics and Political Change."

    Thank you.

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal:

    Thank you, Judy.

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