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Jayapal hopes to be first South Asian woman in Congress; her opponents battle for second place

Amy Radil
Jayapal thanks supporters at Hale's brewery in Ballard on primary night.

Tuesday’s primary results show state senator Pramila Jayapal  in the lead for the 7th Congressional District seat. That’s the seat being vacated by longtime representative Jim McDermott.

It’s not clear yet who her opponent will be. King County Councilmember Joe McDermott and state Legislator Brady Walkinshaw are in a dead heat for the second spot.

Pramila Jayapal is a state senator who came into the public eye as an activist with the group OneAmerica. There she worked on issues like immigration reform and raising the minimum wage in Seattle.

Speaking from the stage at Hale’s Palladium in Ballard after initial vote totals were announced, Jayapal said she’ll pursue the same progressive issues if she’s elected to Congress in November.

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“It’s about leading the way,” she said. “To insure that the federal government invests again right here in the 7th Congressional District in transit, in affordable housing, in mental health. That we recommit to ending homelessness and the opportunity gap in our public schools. To making college debt-free.”

Jayapal came to the U.S. from India as a teenager. Tuesday she told the group her mother is in India and couldn’t attend the primary night party, “but she’s waiting to see the video!”

Jayapal said her candidacy, if successful, could establish several “firsts” for Washington’s delegation.

“What a great message the 7th Congressional District is going to send when we elect the first woman in the district, the first person of color in the Democratic delegation, and the first South Asian American woman in Congress,” she told the crowd.

In a statement released on primary night, Jayapal’s campaign said she’s raised $1.5 million so far, the most of any candidate in this race. She got contributions from organized labor and independent support from a super-PAC affiliated with abortion rights nonprofit, Emily’s List. Bernie Sanders also endorsed her last spring and raised money on her behalf.  But Jayapal said it’s been a tough race against Joe McDermott, who is no relation to the retiring Congressman.

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Jayapal said McDermott had a commanding lead in April polls which she managed to shrink to a five point lead by mid-July.  “We still were behind so we did not expect this result. But this result is pretty phenomenal,” she said.

Jayapal said she’s feeling good about the progress she was able to make by primary night. She has 38 percent of the vote in the initial tally, while McDermott and Walkinshaw each have about 21 percent of the vote so far. McDermott leads Walkinshaw by almost 600 votes.

Speaking to supporters in his West Seattle neighborhood, McDermott talked about his years in the state Legislature and now on the King County Council. And he said he’s committed to campaign finance reform and overturning the Citizens United decision as his top priority if he’s elected. 

“We cannot tackle our nation’s problems, like immigration reform, climate change and gun violence, until we reform the way our campaigns are financed and run in this country,” he said.

During the primary, McDermott criticized Jayapal’s willingness to allow independent spending by the SuperPAC. It was one of the few ways these candidates differed on the issues, and the one negative note in an otherwise positive campaign so far.

Now McDermott said he hopes to be the one to face Jayapal in the general election. “I feel good about the message we’ve talked about, the progressive results I’ve been achieving for the last 15 years,” he said, “and based on the numbers, would hope to be talking about those same successes through the next 98 days of the campaign.”

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But state Representative Brady Walkinshaw, the third possibility for the 7th district, said he’s hoping to overtake McDermott as more votes are counted this week. The top two vote-getters will move on to the November election.  

“We’re still the underdogs and I believe we’re going to pull this thing off,” Walkinshaw said. “I mean, we are in a strong place, I think our momentum has really crested over the last two weeks, and I’m excited about where we’re going to wind up.”

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Walkinshaw celebrated his primary returns at the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill. His voice hoarse from campaigning, Walkinshaw told supporters he will continue to talk about climate change, the issue that he said prompted him to run for Congress. “Because if we don’t address climate change and climate justice, the future of our planet is not going to be one we want to live in, so let’s fight for climate change.”

There were nine candidates total on the primary ballot. The two Republicans, Scott Sutherland and Craig Keller, did better in Snohomish County than in King.  But in both counties it was progressive Democrats in the top three places so far.

KUOW’s Deborah Wang and Angela Nguyen also contributed to this report.

Year started with KUOW: 2005