Young volunteers like Zakariya Ahmed, a South Seattle College student and Bernie Sanders supporter, are boosting Pramila Jayapal’s 7th Congressional District campaign.
Zakariya Ahmed isn’t running for Congress. But Pramila Jayapal wants the 18-year-old to feel like he is.
When Jayapal delivered a pump-up speech on a drizzly Saturday morning last month to Ahmed and other campaign volunteers, the candidate for Washington’s 7th Congressional District seat didn’t use the word “I.”
She used the word “we,” and insisted her race is about building a movement to push for change.
Where they stand on the issues
Should voters pass state Initiative 732, which would enact a carbon tax while cutting the state sales tax?
Jayapal: No. Supports putting a price on carbon but says I-732 isn’t the right way.
What should the federal minimum wage be?
Jayapal: $15 an hour.
Walkinshaw: $15 an hour.
Should assault weapons be banned?
Should the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact be ratified?
Jayapal: Not in its current form.
Walkinshaw: Not in its current form.
Who should be U.S. president?
Jayapal: Endorsed Bernie Sanders early on, now endorses Hillary Clinton.
Walkinshaw: Caucused for Sanders, then endorsed Clinton.
Seattle Times research
“If we win in November with your help, it means we all win and it means we send a strong, bold, progressive woman of color — and her love army — to the United States Congress,” Jayapal told the crowd.
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Ahmed’s reasons for supporting Jayapal — a Democratic state senator elected in 2014 — help explain why a onetime Wall Street investment banker born in India and reared in Indonesia may soon represent most of the Seattle area in Washington, D.C.
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Ahmed, who campaigned for Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders in San Diego earlier this year, is working his way through South Seattle College.
The Roosevelt High School graduate was preparing last month to give up an Amazon.com warehouse gig to become an airport baggage handler.
His aunt knows Jayapal through One America, the immigrant-rights nonprofit Jayapal started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and she introduced him to the candidate.
Ahmed, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Somalia, had initially been drawn to Jayapal’s opponent, Democratic state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, because Walkinshaw has put climate change at the heart of his campaign.
Then his aunt told him Jayapal had been endorsed by Sanders and wanted to make public universities and colleges tuition-free.
“I looked into Pramila and her background and all the work she’s done. I met her a couple times and every time it was like she was my long-lost friend,” Ahmed said.
Jayapal, 51, won August’s top-two primary and goes into the Nov. 8 general election with strong backing from Sanders supporters, young people, union workers and immigrants attracted to her campaign. Some supporters, like Ahmed, check multiple boxes.
Best known locally for her part in the push for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and for starting One America, Jayapal moved to the U.S. for college in 1982. She became an American citizen in 2000. Though some of her many careers don’t make it into her stump speech, Jayapal has worked in defibrillator sales and international development.
First called Hate Free Zone, One America sought to combat discrimination against Muslim Americans. More recently, the nonprofit has lobbied for immigration reform.
Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, says voters worried about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric haven’t forgotten who Jayapal stood with 15 years ago.
“She has a track record of helping communities even when it’s not popular,” said Bukhari, who’s endorsed Jayapal in his personal capacity (not on behalf of CAIR-WA).
Pressing to close the 21 percentage-point lead Jayapal scored in the nine-candidate primary, Walkinshaw has described himself as a “bridge builder,” implicitly portraying Jayapal as radical and uncompromising.
And Walkinshaw has noted that Jayapal doesn’t live in the 7th District. She advocated for the 2012 creation of a minority-majority congressional district that made her Columbia City neighborhood part of the 9th District currently held by Rep. Adam Smith.
Jayapal did live in the 7th District for years and has vowed to move, if elected. And she argues she has more experience than Walkinshaw in crafting political coalitions.
Lobbying on behalf of One America, she worked across the aisle in 2013 to help wrangle an immigration-reform bill through the U.S. Senate. Last year she helped move a state apprenticeship program for women and people of color through the state Legislature.
“It’s one thing to talk about (building bridges). It’s another thing to have a history of doing it,” Jayapal said.
State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, says Jayapal has a reputation in Olympia as principled but congenial. While Walkinshaw has successfully sponsored more laws, getting legislation off the ground has been easier for him in the Democratic-led House, said Frockt, who has served in both chambers. Republicans control the Senate.
“This thing about her being a bomb thrower, I could not disagree more,” Frockt said, adding that Jayapal has made her voice heard as the Senate’s only woman of color.
Support from labor
Some of her most vigorous backers are in the labor movement. Jayapal’s husband, Steve Williamson, is executive vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21.
“She’s one of us — I hear this over and over from different labor leaders,” said Nicole Grant, executive secretary of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council.
Grant says the apprenticeship bill “wasn’t going anywhere” until Jayapal took it up.
“It had been siloed as a piece of unionism Republicans didn’t want to deal,” she recalled, saying the bill’s passage was important to women in the construction industry.
Jayapal’s gender matters, Grant says: “I consider supporting her an expression of my feminism,” she said. And while some voters worry Jayapal’s politics could leave her marginalized in D.C., Grant appreciates the candidate’s unabashed progressivism.
“I remember when I saw her first TV ad. Everything was bright pink and she was talking about Social Security, sick leave, family leave. She wasn’t holding back,” Grant said, noting Jayapal wants to evangelize Seattle’s minimum-wage law and other breakthroughs across the country.
“I’m open to somebody who wants to push the envelope. Because what we’ve seen locally is that when you shoot for the moon, you can hit it,” Grant said.