Rep. Pramila Jayapal in Seattle, March 6, 2017. Photo by Sara Bernard.

“People Call Me the Anti-Trump”: Rep. Jayapal’s Packed Town Hall a Sign of the Times

The freshman congresswoman is reveling in her role as Trump Resister No. 1.

When Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) got up to the mic on Monday night to address her first public town hall in a series she’ll hold this spring across the 7th Congressional District, one of the first queries she put to the crowd was, “If this is the first town hall that you’ve been to for an elected representative in your life, would you stand up?”

Such a stunning majority of the crowd stood so immediately, to shrieks and whoops of applause, that even Jayapal seemed surprised; she raised a joyous fist in the air and cried, half-laughing, “Oh my God!”

And then: “If you have called your elected official for the first time this year, stand up!” to which another, decidedly hefty percentage of the room stood. A number of people sat back down because this wasn’t the first year they’d ever signed a petition, but then Jayapal said, “If you marched for the first time since this election…” and the cheers grew even as she said it. By that point, it seemed that nearly the whole room was standing.

There were a few people standing with their backs against the wall, too, as by 5:30 p.m. there were almost no empty seats left in the Great Hall of Town Hall Seattle. Some in attendance had made handmade signs of support, like “Thanks Rep. Jayapal for doing your job!” Another sign, held high at intervals throughout the evening by an eager-faced man in a white T-shirt, read simply, “Go Rep. Jayapal!” Green and orange fliers printed with the words “Agree” and “Disagree” were provided in order for people to show support or lack thereof toward various positions; the word “Agree” fluttered madly the whole time. When Jayapal first arrived on stage, she received a standing ovation.

There is no question that, to many local residents who oppose the current federal administration — and the current U.S. Congressional majority — Jayapal represents one of very few reasons to have hope right now. She promised on Monday, as she has previously, to fight the current powers that be on nearly every major issue, from immigration (she was among the first at Sea-Tac Airport following the original travel ban and calls President Donald Trump’s immigration-related executive orders “brutal”) to health care (she said a recent health care rally she helped organize was second only in size to Bernie Sanders’, to which she laughed, “That’s OK!”). She decried the recent threats to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, and to Planned Parenthood’s; she said she wants to end mass incarceration, tax the rich, and launch an independent investigation of both the administration’s alleged ties to Russia and Trump’s potential conflicts of interest (she also wants him to release his tax returns). She told the room that her office has received some 36,000 pieces of constituent correspondence so far, and most of it falls into a handful of categories, including immigration, women’s health, the environment, and one that, she said, “I’ll call… anti-Trump.” The room laughed and cheered. “Some people have called me ‘the anti-Trump,’” she added. “And I’m so proud!”

Despite repeated concessions that there was, given the Democratic minority in the House, a limited number of things that she and like-minded representatives could actually accomplish (the “legislative tools are limited”), she still toed a hard, leftist line, promising to move the needle as far as she could in the direction of single-payer health care — though she compared the Affordable Care Act repeal efforts to “standing on quicksand” — and tax reform. “The issue is not that we don’t have enough money; we’re not taxing the right people at the right rates,” she said.

“I’m really happy that she is sticking to what she was promising, definitely,” said Bob Garcia, who lives in Shoreline, and voted for Jayapal. It was the first town hall he’d attended in a long time. Unlike a lot of politicians, Jayapal doesn’t have “this conciliatory attitude,” he said. “It’s like, ‘We need to do this. We need to stand up for people.’… We need to protect everybody. That’s something that with the current administration, the current divisiveness, the current fear… that’s something that we need right now. And she was the personification of that tonight.”

Several teenagers, aged 14 and 15, asked Jayapal if there was anything she could do about climate change, in part because, as they said, they’d be the ones to live through its worst effects. She said she’d been working on legislation to prevent oil and gas drilling on public lands, and suspected that there’d be bipartisan support for renewable energy incentives, but beyond that, what the country is now facing is a 25 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, and a winnowing of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Power Plan. On that, and many issues, “Our power lies in the court of public opinion and in you,” she said. She urged everyone in the room to both “make as much noise as possible” and to gather “as many unlikely allies as we can” by talking to friends and family members in more conservative districts, for instance. “It’s not comfortable, but guess what: preserving our democracy is not comfortable.”

One woman got up to the mic and introduced herself as someone who actually lives in the 8th district, which covers most of the Eastside as well as Kittias and Chelan counties, though she works in the 7th. “We’re having a hard time finding our Congressman,” she quipped, and the whole room erupted in laughter and applause. Likely she was referring to the fact that Representative Dave Reichert (R-Auburn) had controversially opted for a Facebook town hall instead of a live one, and possibly also to the efforts of Indivisible Eastside, the group actively seeking an audience with him (many in attendance held Indivisible Guide signs, bearing the words “Resist and Persist”).

Jayapal said that she had, in fact, recently been able to co-sign a piece of legislation with Reichert — the BRIDGE Act, which extends protections for undocumented youth; it would allow those who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to remain in the U.S. for three years without risk of deportation. She said she felt confident that there were a few other opportunities for bipartisan support, too, such as renewing the Violence Against Women Act and, possibly, preserving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization in 2018. She also said she believed that the efforts to repeal the ACA wouldn’t be successful, since there is, so far, anyway, no clear alternative that wouldn’t pull the rug out from under millions of Americans who are newly insured. Four Republican members of Congress have come out in opposition to cuts and caps on Medicaid.

The point is, she told her audience, “We’ll protect as much as we possibly can and we’ll stand up for you every step of the way.” Among the other, perhaps less well-known battles to be fought: a GOP-sponsored bill in the House that could severely limit class action lawsuits. “Class actions are about the little guy… and gal,” Jayapal said. “And” — referring to the gender identification spectrum — “everyone in between!” More laughter and applause.

Garcia said part of the reason he was at a town hall at all was because he, like many locals, feels the need to do something tangible; it was too depressing to just watch the incessant rants on social media, where “everybody’s complaining, everybody’s yelling at each other, but nobody’s doing anything… What’s the use of just complaining if you’re not getting out and doing something to be part of the solution? She is part of the solution.”

According to Jayapal, she’s simply tapping into a solution that already existed.

“People are awake in a way that we have never seen before,” she said.

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