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The making of the first Indian-American woman in US House of Representatives

Last updated on: November 11, 2016 15:29 IST

Chennai-born Pramila Jayapal makes history in Washington state; she is also the firstperson of colour in the Washington State Democratic delegation.

George Joseph reports from New York.

IMAGE: Pramila Jayapal with her husband Steve and her son Janak, 17.  Photograph: PramilaJayapal/Twitter

Pramila Jayapal, 51, who had made history in 2014 by becoming the first Indian American elected to the Washington State Senate, made history again on November 8. Defeating State Representative Brady Walkinshaw, 32, in the 7th Congressional District of Washington State, she became the first Indian-American woman in the US House of Representatives and the first person of colour in the Washington State Democratic delegation.

She received 132,216 votes to Walkinshaw’s 98,461.

The news of the win came soon after another Indian-American woman made history in this election. Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California became the first desi to be elected to the US Senate.

Maya Jayapal, Pramila Jayapal’s mother, told Rediff.com, “It was an emotional moment for us.” 

“We felt very proud when we were informed of the victory,” said the 76-year-old, who works as a writer and a mental health counsellor.

“Our victory tonight is not about me…it is about we,” Jayapal said in a statement after her win.While it was my name on the ballot, what I have believed throughout my life is that change happens when everyone engages in the process.”

“Over 1,100 active volunteers helped us communicate our message with voters by knocking on over 165,000 doors and making over 290,000 phone calls. Our 77,000 grassroots donors powered this movement with an average gift of $23,” she continued. “We earned the support of over 60 labor unions, every single women’s organization, the leading progressive national organisations, and the King County Democrats. We had leaders on our team from every sector of our community -- fighters for the environment, racial justice, immigrant rights, and LGBTQ equality.”

Jayapal, the Chennai-born activist who has been on the forefront of fighting for racial justice, women’s rights and immigrant rights for two decades and had the endorsement of erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, ran a comfortable race to replace the retiring long-time Democrat Jim McDermott in a district that constitutes the Seattle area.

In the primaries, in a nine-way race, she had routed the other contenders. Her fund raising kept her ahead for much of the campaign.

She also had the additional boost of endorsements from elected leaders at the city, county, and state level; community, nonprofit, and faith leaders; plus scores of individuals. The range of community leaders and activists who endorsed her included heads of local and statewide organizations that fight for social justice, seniors, education, affordable housing and healthcare, LGBT, civil, immigrant and refugee rights.

However, on the eve of the election Jayapal was concerned over the last minute advent of a Super PAC with an infusion of $750,000 (Rs 5 crore) to launch a series of attack ads against her and boost the campaign of her opponent, Walkinshaw.

“We are still confident, but very concerned about raising the money we need because we don’t need any last minute surprises, and we want to make sure we are matching their negative ads so that people don’t fall for their bogus propaganda,” she had told us soon after finished a call “with a few Indian Americans to try and raise $200,000 urgently to go up in TV ourselves and counter the negative buys.”

IMAGE: Pramila Jayapal had earlier made history in 2014 by becoming the first Indian-American elected to the Washington State Senate. Photograph: Pramila.Jayapal/Facebook

Although Jayapal said she didn’t know who was funding this PAC, she had suspected there was money pouring in from pro-charter school and anti-$15-an-hour minimum wage groups. Sources had also pointed out that Walkinshaw’s grandparents are “very wealthy” and had been the backbone of funding several Washington state US legislators both in the House and Senate and exercise considerable influence in Seattle.

“I cannot wait to take our mighty movement to the halls of Congress,” Jayapal told the media after her win.

“The kind of change we seek won’t come quickly or easily, because it’s not just about changing policies, it’s about changing our politics from a system that is transactional to one that is transformational,” she said. “A transformational politics that allows all of us to be lifted up together and that proudly takes care of those amongst us who need it the most; a transformational politics that sees the world through a lens of generosity and abundance and not scarcity and fear; a transformational politics that believes that we all have talents and gifts to offer, and the task at hand is to pass policies that leverages what we all have to offer so we all live our lives to our fullest potential.”

Noting that the 7th district of Washington was a very special place that welcomed a 16-year old immigrant, she added, “It’s where I came to live 25 years ago, where I chose to raise our family, where I chose to give back for all this nation has provided.”

Who is Pramila Jayapal?

Pramila Jayapal was born in Chennai to parents who hail from Palghat in Kerala. Her parents MP Jayapalan and Maya now live in Bengaluru, Karnataka.

Pramila followed in her elder sister’s footsteps -- Suseela now lives in Portland, Oregon -- when she came to the US as a 16-year-old student. “It was painful to part with her. But we always gave importance to the children’s education and future and let her go,” her mother Maya Jayapal told Rediff.com.

Pramila's father wanted her to become the CEO of IBM one day. Initially, following that vision, she earned her MBA at Kellogg School at Northwestern University and then worked on Wall Street. “But I felt dissatisfied soon,” she had told this correspondent earlier. “Making money did not attract me. I wanted to work for people and social justice. After two decades, I feel that I made the right decision.”

Maya Jayapal acknowledged that when Pramila left her job in corporate world to work for social causes, the parents felt anxious. But, she said, they let her follow her calling.

Jayapal founded OneAmerica, Washington state’s largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organisation, and became a leading national advocate for immigrant, civil, and human rights. She was also chosen as a White House Champion for Change.

“I am a progressive thinker, but also understands demands from different levels. I have worked with people who disagree with me. I take it as a challenge to fix problems rather than leaving it,” she had said. “I am an organiser and don’t have a give-up bone in my body! I am relentless in finding solutions, organizing people and communities around those solutions, and moving to resolution.”

Politics, she then realised, “is another vehicle to carry out changes in society and work for the causes dear to me.” It prompted her to run for the Washington State Senate two years ago. Her win then had made her the only woman of colour in the state Senate.

-- With inputs from Aziz Haniffa

George Joseph in New York