Pramila Jayapal: “I Don’t Have A Give Up Bone In My Body”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our series of interviews with the candidates- 5 Democrats and 1 Republican- who are vying to replace retiring State Senator Adam Kline in the 37th District. The top two candidates chosen in the primary election- held on August 5th- will continue on to the general- which takes place on November 4th. The winner of which will represent the 37th District in the Washington State Senate. The 37th currently comprises almost the entire South Seattle area.

Unifying individuals from all walks of life down a single pathway has been the primary task of Pramila Jayapal since independently venturing to the United States at the age of 16. Whether founding the organization OneAmerica to quell misdirected anger aimed at Arabs, Muslims and South Asians that resulted after 9/11, working at the Center for Community Change to eradicate racial injustice, or serving on Mayor Ed Murray’s committee for Income Inequality to assist in solving the widening wealth divide amongst Seattleites – the author, activist, humanitarian, and Columbia City resident has always sought to build bridges between groups where none previously existed. She hopes this experience will serve her well as she vies for the State Senate position in the 37th District- the most socioeconomically diverse district in the state.

Emerald: You’re known primarily for your activism work, especially on the issue of immigration reform. Why did you decide to step over to the “other side” and seek to become directly involved inside the minutiae of politics by running for State Senator?

Pramila Jayapal: I’ve been an outside activist for twenty years with Social Justice Issues. I guess I’ve realized that the two things I have been working on for the last twenty years – which was, number one, to get elected officials and policy makers to make better policy decisions- and number two, to organize people to believe their voice mattered, so that they could have a seat at the table where decisions are being made.

I felt I could do both those things with the platform of a State Senator. I could also use my organizing ability inside the legislature. So I’m going to continue to do things I’ve been doing, though the platform would be different in some ways, because I’d be able to make that link between grass roots organizing/activism and the political system. Being someone who comes from an organizing background, and somebody who comes from a lot of the communities we’d be representing and having worked on a lot of issues important to them for years -being an immigrant myself- I think I would bring a real important and diverse perspective to the State Legislature, with so many issues that matter so much to our district. I really want to try and make a difference there.

Emerald: Your background paints you as somewhat of a “poster child” for the American Dream. You came to the United States at the age of 16 by yourself, and went on to receive a degree from Georgetown and a Masters from Northwestern, along with having some success in the private sector before turning exclusively to the non-profit world. With many people feeling that the American Dream is in decay, especially many residents in the South Seattle area who point to the lack of quality jobs and opportunity of education in the area, how would you attempt to ensure that the dream remains attainable for everyone irrespective of background?

Jayapal: I think that the reason I’ve spent my life doing the work I’ve been doing is because I feel that everybody should have opportunity. Despite some very difficult circumstances in my life, I feel like I’ve been incredibly privileged to do the things I’ve been able to do, but it shouldn’t be a privileged opportunity, power should be accessible to everybody who wants it, and jobs should be available to people so that they can give their full self to our country and to our community, and so in the state legislature there are a couple of things that I think need improving.

One is our tax system is extremely regressive and we really need to think about reforming it. Everything else we do depends on how we raise more sustainable revenue that’s not on the backs of working and low income people. So, I’m really thinking about not only how we close tax loopholes and corporate exemptions, so that we’re able to support an effective transit package that includes transportation for our district, that creates jobs by investing in infrastructure, that promotes minority and women owned businesses in particular which are really important in this district, and which funds our education system.

To do all of that, we’re going to need to figure out how we can get more revenue, and it can’t be regressive. So I’m interested in going back to a higher income earners tax- which we weren’t able to pass a few years ago – but I do feel like the conversation is different and the opportunity is different, and I really want to think about what it would mean to revamp our tax system in the state so that we have a form of taxation that actually grows with our economy and doesn’t penalize the people who have the least.

Emerald: South Seattle is home of some of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. Your specialty has been steering diverse groups of people together towards common goals. How do you think that experience would assist you in making sure the various viewpoints of those living in South Seattle are fully represented by you as our State Senator?

Jayapal: When we worked on immigration reform, we took positions on a whole host of issues that were civil rights, human rights, and immigrant rights issues. We were one of the first groups to advocate on behalf of marriage equality. I’ve personally been involved in police reform and police accountability for more than ten years, and we took positions on environmental justice issues. So I really see the field as very broad.

To me it’s a very big canvas, and the 37th really exemplifies that canvas, it’s a very diverse district, economically and racially and I want everyone to feel like they have a place in this district. That they have a voice in this district, and I want the people who have kind of dropped out because they felt that they weren’t heard, or weren’t listened to, and don’t want to vote anymore or participate anymore because of that – I want to bring those folks together. And we’ve been able to do it in the past and it’s the reason that we’ve had such a diverse coalition of group support in our efforts. First of all you have to be a friend to have a friend, and so you need to look at a the whole range of issues and remember that people aren’t siloed. You also must be able to continue to see the intersections between all of these issues, and then be able to have a strong, principled stand that does represent everyone.

Emerald: You’ve worked at city level on police reform, a huge area of concern for South Seattle residents is public safety. The debate over the best solutions on addressing it have been somewhat polarizing, i.e: Should there be more policing? More prisons? Funding for more preventative measures? What would you do at the State Senate level to address these concerns?

Jayapal: I think there’s multiple levels, and I am proud to have co-chaired the police chief search panel, and to have served on Police Accountability and Reform panels that demanded changes in the police department. I do believe that the choice of our current Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole is going to make a huge step forward for public safety in the city.

But at the state level I think a couple of things, what’s that phrase: “A job is the best way to dodge a bullet.” I think that we have to look at this from the criminal justice system and then also from the economic opportunity system and what choices we’re making available. So from the criminal justice system I don’t believe in building new prisons. I believe that we need to invest in prevention, so I’m going to do everything I can at the State level to invest in training, support, and prevention and not in locking people up, because there are lot of young people- particularly young black men- who are in these situations where they’re not offered choices, so I’m going to make sure that we look at different ways to address crime, and to think humanely and holistically about how we put people back on the right track and rehabilitate people.

Secondly, I want to make sure that we are investing in economic opportunities and programs that help people to see what other choices are out there, and third I think that there are some things – and I’m currently looking into it- that the state can do in the capita budget to have a safe streets program, where the state could funnel some dollars into cities that are dealing with violence, and crime, and hotspot areas. Finally on the side, I’m going to be continuing to advocate, though they’re city issues, that the southend of Seattle gets the attention it deserves in regards to safe policing, community policing,and all the things that it should get from the Seattle Police Department.

Emerald: You’ve been a strong advocate of every student having equal access to a good education regardless of where they’re geographically located. With the Washington State Supreme Court finding in 2012 that the state was not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for all students -which came as no surprise to many South Seattle parents and students- what would you do as our State Senator to ensure that our area’s students receive a superior level of schooling than they are currently being given?

Jayapal: I think first of all when you talk about lifting up all students, and we do need to lift up all students, you need to talk about targeting certain issues in the discussion, and those issues remain race and class. In order to get at what the issues are, we need to look at all the ways the education system has institutionalized racism built into it, and then make sure that we’re addressing that as we come up with solutions. I’ve already been working on that through One America. Many years ago, when we established a special policy group that advocated school districts to address issues specifically related to English language learners – that was the group I was advocating for at the time – and we came up with bipartisan solutions, some of which actually got passed in the last legislative session. That helped bilingual students to make it through their pathways.

Some of this comes down to revenue, but we have to make sure that we do reach the Supreme Court’s McCleary standards and fully fund education. Our class sizes are 47th in the country, and that’s unacceptable. We have some of the lowest funding per capita compared to our economic output of any state in the country. We have a lot of things to fix on the funding side. On the accountability side it has to be targeted towards kids of color who need the support, and we may have to be able to desegregate our data and figure out exactly why kids are failing and figure out how teachers can get more support. I’m looking forward to diving into all of that with an eye towards making sure we definitely understand that our kids who need the support are as brilliant as everyone else, but just aren’t currently getting the support that they need.

Emerald: In a race packed with Democrats what, in your opinion, distinguishes you from the rest?

Jayapal: I’d say that everyone who runs gets a huge shout out, because it’s really hard to do! So, I really appreciate all the other people who are running, but I think that I have the track record of having worked on incredibly difficult issues – issues of civil liberties post 9/11, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, police reform and accountability- where I have actually been in a leadership role. I started, implemented, and drove the policy advocacy, and the community organizing, to get things done and to bring a lot of diverse folks together to be a part of that solution.

So, I think I have that combination of smart policy and analytical skills, as well as organizing skills to help inspire people, and make it known that their voices matter. You can sort of see that from my endorsements list. I think I’ve gotten every single union endorsement so far. I’ve gotten endorsements of women’s rights groups, environmental groups, key leaders and political leaders from the city, state, county and federal levels – from (Washington State) Senator Patty Murray. I don’t have a “give up” bone in my body as someone said. I’m going to fight, that’s one of my favorite phrases. I’m going to fight to make sure that the people in the 37th district, working families, people of color, and immigrants have the opportunity to really live out a life that is abundant in opportunity.

Emerald: If elected, what would you like people to say about you once your term in Olympia had ended?

Jayapal: Well, I have so much I want to accomplish (laughter). If that sentence said something like, “She dramatically changed the tax reform and revenue system in the state so that we could actually fund education, and transportation, and brought everyone around to do it I’d be very happy with that.

Emerald: You’ve lived in Washington D.C, India, Singapore, and Indonesia to name put a few places you’ve called home, but have been a long time resident of South Seattle. What do you love most about this area that distinguishes it from so many other places?

Jayapal: I’ve lived in this district and this area for over 19 years. I made a foray into Wallingford for a year, and nothing against that area, but I couldn’t wait to get back to South Seattle. What I love about the southend is that I find it is full of generosity, abundance, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and principled passion – and I love that.

I love that we have so much racial and economic diversity even though it is disappearing fairly quickly and I want to figure out how we keep that. I love that we seem like the part of town where we’re all interested in other parts of the world and their lifestyles. People really have the ability to be who they are here, and that really compliments the neighborhood. I love the sense of neighborliness that we have in South Seattle, and I really just feel so honored to live in a part of town that is going to be the future of the state and frankly the future of the country.