U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal engages with Free Palestine demonstrators
United States Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, speaks to Free Palestine demonstrators and convention attendees during the final Netroots Nation 2023 keynote in Chicago, Illinois (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The rise of a pro­gres­sive move­ment in Con­gress, over the last twen­ty years, is an under­re­port­ed sto­ry in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. At Net­roots Nation, the country’s largest gath­er­ing of like-mind­ed pro­gres­sives, the mes­sage Sat­ur­day in Chica­go was to redou­ble the effort even if such goals as uni­ver­sal health care and gun safe­ty and fil­i­buster reform have so far proven elusive.

“We as pro­gres­sives are expand­ing the realm of what’s pos­si­ble,” said new­ly elect­ed Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Sum­mer Lee, D‑Pennsylvania, who won in a Pitts­burgh dis­trict despite pro-Israel PACs spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to block her.

A bevy of pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers deliv­ered a two-front chal­lenge to their par­ty: Democ­rats should orga­nize to resist ultra MAGA Repub­li­can forces, but also work to broad­en the party’s con­stituen­cy. Inte­gral is rejec­tion of “neo-lib­er­al trick­le down pol­i­tics,” said Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Prami­la Jaya­pal, D‑Washington, chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Caucus.

Both Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion have an “oli­garchy” in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., she added, “where pow­er is exer­cised by money.”

The Democ­rats have spent far too much time court­ing afflu­ent, upper mid­dle class, col­lege-edu­cat­ed vot­ers while, in Jayapal’s view, ignor­ing nat­ur­al con­stituen­cies which don’t always show up to vote. Said Jaya­pal:: “It is our great base of poor peo­ple, black and brown, Indige­nous vot­ers, immi­grants, young peo­ple who won’t swing Repub­li­can but will swing right out to the couch if we don’t work to bring them in, win their trust and their votes.”

U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal speaks at Netroots Nation
Jaya­pal, who rep­re­sents Wash­ing­ton’s 7th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, spoke on Sat­ur­day morn­ing, after a pan­el of four of her col­leagues. Jaya­pal then par­tic­i­pat­ed in a pan­el with Jesús “Chuy” Gar­cía, Jan Schakowsky, and Markos Moulit­sas. (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

As for the ultra MAGA forces, Jaya­pal said: “Today we are fac­ing down a vio­lent move­ment of fas­cism that aims to destroy insti­tu­tions in the name of a strongman.”

But blunt talk was not just direct­ed at Don­ald Trump. The sec­ond posi­tion in Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial polls is held by Flori­da Gov­er­nor Ron DeSan­tis, pro­mul­ga­tor of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and oppo­nent of diver­si­ty and inclu­sive­ness pro­grams in his state’s schools.

“I come from a state run by a ______ (exple­tive) fas­cist,” said Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Maxwell Frost, D‑Florida, at twen­ty-sev­en the first “Gen­er­a­tion Z” mem­ber of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Frost came to Con­gress after work in the March for Our Lives move­ment, orga­nized in the wake of the Mar­jorie Stone­man Dou­glas High School mas­sacre which killed sev­en­teen stu­dents and administrators.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D‑Illinois, called out Repub­li­cans for refus­ing to allow a House floor vote on gun safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, even as the coun­try aver­ages more than one mass shoot­ing per day (the lat­est, in Geor­gia, saw four peo­ple killed). Just five Repub­li­cans, along with the 213 Democ­rats„ are need­ed to sign a dis­charge peti­tion in the 435-mem­ber House of Representatives.

None have come for­ward to do so.

“They are chicken___ (exple­tive): They are afraid to go against the par­ty,” said Schakowsky, sym­bol­ic of changes that have come over Con­gress. She also not­ed near-unan­i­mous Repub­li­can sup­port for an anti-abor­tion amend­ment as House mem­bers vot­ed on the defense autho­riza­tion bill.

Schakowsky rep­re­sents a Chica­go dis­trict once held by Demo­c­ra­t­ic insid­er and lat­er Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel.

Such blunt and pow­er­ful talk has not always been enough for some in the Net­roots Nation audi­ence. In 2015, at Las Vegas, Black Lives Mat­ter demon­stra­tors dis­rupt­ed a pres­i­den­tial forum just as Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders was talk­ing about high rates of youth unem­ploy­ment among African Americans.

In Chica­go on Sat­ur­day, pan­el mod­er­a­tor, Net­roots Nation board mem­ber, and rap­per Reg­gie Hub­bard gave a shout out not only to Ukraini­ans but also to what he described as the oppressed of the Holy Land. “We need peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced occu­pa­tion, not only but Pales­tin­ian peo­ple who have now expe­ri­enced occu­pa­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion for sev­en­ty-live years.”

It wasn’t enough for some in the audience.

A pan­el of House mem­bers was dis­rupt­ed with flags and chants of “Israel is a racist state.” Schakowsky, who is Jew­ish, tried to calm the protest. “I am your ally… Know your allies,” she said. “I am absolute­ly opposed to the kind of vio­lence against the Pales­tini­ans that is hap­pen­ing right now.”

Jaya­pal deliv­ered a remark sure to be con­tro­ver­sial back home in Seattle.

“I want to make it clear,” she said. “We have been fight­ing to make it clear Israel is a racist state, that the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple deserve self-deter­mi­na­tion and auton­o­my, that a two-state solu­tion is slip­ping away from us that it does not even feel possible.”

Hub­bard came back onstage to admon­ish the protesters.

“This ain’t progress, y’all,” said he. “We all need to respect the First Amend­ment but we need to respect one another.”

Half of the Democ­rats’ two hun­dred and thir­teen-mem­ber House con­tin­gent now belong to the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus. They have helped shape the agen­da of the Biden-Har­ris administration.

Mod­er­a­tor Markos Moulit­sas, founder and pro­pri­etor of the pop­u­lar Dai­ly Kos com­mu­ni­ty, asked Jaya­pal: “What have you done to whip that cau­cus into shape?”

She deliv­ered a les­son in real politic. Push the debate, push the com­pro­mise in your direc­tion, and sign off when you achieve some­thing sub­stan­tive. She cit­ed the Infla­tion Reduc­tion Act, with its enor­mous invest­ment in clean ener­gy. . “We don’t have to win every fight,” sad Jaya­pal. “Some­times the fight (itself) is worth­while.” Adding: “We’re always pro­gres­sive, and we want more.”

Jaya­pal has put togeth­er a $4.5 mil­lion PAC to sup­port pro­gres­sive can­di­dates and fend off chal­lengers. The out­spo­ken Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ilhan Omar, D‑Minnesota, bare­ly with­stood a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge in 2022 and was recent­ly stripped of her seat on the House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee by the Repub­li­can Majority.

Jaya­pal has a mixed record back home. She poured mon­ey into State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Beth Doglio’s cam­paign for a vacant 10th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict seat in 2020, only to see a less pro­gres­sive rival, Mar­i­lyn Strick­land, win the seat in a rout. Mean­while, a trio of “Bernie­crat” chal­lengers have tak­en on Jaya­pal’s col­leagues Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Adam Smith, Rick Larsen and Derek Kilmer, D‑Washington. None has been able to break 15 per­cent of the vote.

Still, the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus is a force to be reck­oned with, and obliv­i­ous to the old max­im that new­ly elect­ed mem­bers of Con­gress should keep qui­et and build senior­i­ty. “I did not run to wait,” said Frost, arguably the most charis­mat­ic of the new­ly elected.

Jaya­pal is serv­ing her fourth House term, and said Sat­ur­day that she intends to pass the torch of Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus lead­er­ship after the cur­rent Con­gress has adjourned for the last time. She will not seek to lead the CPC in the next Con­gress, but will assume the role of a wise advis­er and kibitzer.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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