From Handcuffs to Elected Office: Washington State's Rabble-Rousing Senator

From Handcuffs to Elected Office: Washington State's Rabble-Rousing Senator

By Sanjena Sathian


Because when radicals take political office, it’s time for Jiffy Pop.

By Sanjena Sathian

Pramila Jayapal’s office is on the second floor of the modest civic building that houses Washington state senators in Olympia. Neat marble floors, plain white walls. Various certificates and plaques dot the room. The standard, muted space of a local politician.

She’d like me to notice the funkier stuff: the Indian-print-and-mirror wall hanging, the framed image of a woman in a burqa holding an American flag. “That’s pretty radical!” she says. Oh, and let’s not forget the rabble-rousing megaphone plastered in newspaper clippings, lodged on top of a bookshelf — a remnant from her recent activist days, displayed as a reminder. I might easily have missed it.

Jayapal is the 49-year-old newly elected Washington state senator, representing the 37th district in Seattle. She’s not exactly an ordinary state rep: She’s the only woman of color in the Senate and one of just five people of color. To find her on the political spectrum, turn left and then go all the way down the line: Her background is in radical activism, the kind that got her arrested in the name of immigration rights, labor issues, hate crimes. The state senate is probably just her first stop in a long policymaking career. But she insists she’s not about to ditch her roots: “I don’t intend to stop getting arrested.”

“If a [U.S.] Senate seat opens up, she will definitely run.”

Ron Sims, former deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Sure, she’s just a freshman — but for a freshman, she’s unafraid of poking her colleagues in the eye. Democratic minority leader Sen. Sharon Nelson says Jayapal came in, guns blazing, and leaped on a bill to restrict payday lending. Perhaps her confidence comes from time spent on the national stage. She got a nod from the White House for serving as an Asian-American community leader on immigration issues; she’s penned op-eds with Gloria Steinem and faced off against Bill O’Reilly and his ilk. “If a Senate seat opens up” — we’re talking nationally — “she will definitely run,” says Ron Sims, former deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who mounted a failed U.S. Senate run himself. “Expectations for her are enormously high.”

Pramila Jayapal at a speaking engagement


Smoothly put-together, with wide-set, lively eyes and a sharp chin, she recounts her years prior to entering politics, telling a story of herself that is practiced but passionate. Born in India and raised there, as well as in Indonesia and Singapore, she headed to the U.S. at 16 for college at Georgetown. Her parents’ plan: She was supposed to become the CEO of IBM. Instead, she used her limited phone time to call her father during her sophomore year and tell him she was going to be an English major. “But you already speak English,” he bemoaned. In an effort to preserve some semblance of financial responsibility, she took to Wall Street after graduation, but mentions a “tiny rebellion” — choosing to work at Paine Webber over the more prestigious Goldman Sachs. She went on to business school. Thereafter came the more colorful turns. 

Those included working at a nonprofit in Thailand and traipsing through Indian villages on a two-year research fellowship (she wrote a book about that time). On the flip side, for a year she worked in sales for a medical defibrillator company out of Cincinnati, which put her in touch with the white-guy, mildly fratlike culture that she’s now surrounded by in the Senate. Her biggest shift came after 9/11, when she founded a group to speak out on crimes committed against brown people: Hate Free Zone, a brash name she later toned down to OneAmerica. But she says she worried about “ceding this political space” (a phrase that echoes the American philosopher Richard Rorty’s critique of anti-state leftists). So elected office it was.

In Olympia now, the Democratic novice has a chance to touch some of her beloved issues — like paid sick leave and payday lending reform. It’s an interesting time for the state, which earned the nation’s gaze over Seattle’s $15 minimum wage battle. Jayapal worked on that committee, prior to her election; now she’s attempting a $12 version of it that would affect the rest of the state, in the Senate. She’s also expanding into new territory — she sits on the transportation and health care committees, which have her talking hospital construction and gas taxes.


To get ahead now, she will have to navigate some tough territory. Her district is complex, with majority-white voting and neighborhoods that can be very conservative or extremely liberal. And then there’s the matter of the Republican majority, which has managed to block much of Jayapal’s beloved labor legislation. You can tell she feels occasionally uncomfortable around not only her GOP colleagues, but also the more conservative Democrats, but off she goes trying to schmooze her new Congress mates. She even went shooting with some of them. She shows me pictures — she is small-made, and looks somewhat comical holding a huge assault rifle. She worries aloud that someone may use the pictures against her, but she has a talking point ready: Now that she’s shot a gun, she knows its power, and that’s another reason to regulate it.

As I bid Jayapal goodbye, she steps into what promises to be a dull, midmorning health care committee session. “I didn’t come here because it would be fun,” she had told me earlier. There, the long gray space of the room is sparsely populated, devoid of energy. Hers is one of the sprightlier voices among the testifying insurers. You can sense her ambition like a ticking clock. And you might also be forcibly reminded of another community organizer turned state senator, who logged time in the Democratic minority as a rare person of color … and who was even raised in Indonesia as well.

Just before I left her, I had asked her if she missed the national stuff. “Yeah,” she had said. “Yeah, I do.”

This story was modified from an earlier version.