Jayapal has backing of progressives, youth, unions in Washington’s 7th District House race

Pramila Jayapal founded the immigrant-rights nonprofit One America after the 9/11 terror attacks and later was active in the $15 minimum-wage movement. Now she’s running for the 7th District U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Jim McDermott. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times) 

Young volunteers like Zakariya Ahmed, a South Seattle College student and Bernie Sanders supporter, are boosting Pramila Jayapal’s 7th Congressional District campaign

By Daniel Beekman, Seattle Times staff reporter

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.

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.

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)...

Support from labor

Some of her most vigorous backers are in the labor movement. Jayapal’s husband, Steve Williamson, heads 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.