Roll call for Senator Jayapal

Let’s talk about that budget vote. And the 105 others.

Photo courtesy fpiw.org

The race for State Representative of Washington’s 7th Congressional District has heated up. The seat is currently held by retiring Congressman Jim McDermott who has declined to endorse either Washington State House Representative Brady Walkinshaw or Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal who are currently trading barbs in hopes of the position.

An ad launched last week by the Walkinshaw campaign makes the argument that while the two candidates share a similar progressive platform, that Walkinshaw’s track record as an elected official demonstrates he is the more effective candidate. The ad makes the particular argument that Jayapal missed a lot of votes in the Senate, including a key vote on the budget.

The ad has provoked a libelous and largely non-sequitur response from the Jayapal campaign alleging that the ad is a Donald Trump style attempt to belittle Jayapal’s accomplishments on the basis that she is a woman, and to “otherize” her as a woman of color. I wrote an article that covers this part of the controversy in detail that you must read before casting a vote for Jayapal.

However, adjacent to the ridiculous accusations of the Jayapal campaign are some attempts at a substantive response to the criticisms presented in the ad, which we will vet now.

Senate vote attendance

The challenge to Jayapal’s voting attendance is presented in the ad as follows:

“She skipped more votes than nearly anyone else. Pramila Jayapal missed more votes than 141 of 147 legislators. Pramila even missed voting on the budget, the most important vote of the year so she could raise money for her campaign in New York.”

The response of the Jayapal campaign, when addressing the claims the Walkinshaw campaign has actually made, primarily focuses on the missed budget vote on Mar. 29.

The voting schedule and the minority party

Two statements in the response from the Jayapal campaign defend her attendance at Senate votes based on her disadvantage as a member of the minority party in the Senate. State Senator and Minority Leader Sharon Nelson said:

“The additional attack on her for missing budget votes is also desperate and ridiculous. As the minority in the Senate, we do not control the timing of votes that occur during Special Session.”

Making a similar defense, State Senator and one of two budget negotiators for the Senate Democrats Kevin Ranker said:

“The ads attacking her record in the Senate are unfortunately misleading and false as they obviously do not recognize the differences between what it is like to work in the majority vs. minority of a body.”

What they are alluding to are the advantages that members of the majority party have in both Houses of Congress, one of which is control of the voting schedule. Jayapal, a Senate Democrat, is a member of the minority party in her House of Congress, while Walkinshaw, a House Democrat, has the luxury of being a member of the majority party.

However, Jayapal’s attendance still doesn’t fare well even when compared only to Washington State legislators who are members of the minority party.

Senator Jayapal missed just over 10 percent of her votes. In comparison to the other 155 legislators that are members of the minority party in their house, only four have missed a higher percentage of their votes. For reference, Representative Walkinshaw, having missed 34 of his own votes, has skipped 2.9 percent of his total roll calls, while 28 minority-party legislators have perfect attendance.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which claims of the ad Senator Ranker thinks are misleading and false. There is nothing false about the 106 votes Jayapal missed, nor is there anything false about the claim that she missed more votes than 141 of the 147 members of our legislature. And regardless of how important you think vote attendance is, and some argue that it is of limited importance, the Walkinshaw campaign is not being misleading when they argue that Jayapal has poor attendance in comparison to almost all of her colleagues in both Houses of Congress.

It was only two days

One of the more perplexing explanations of Jayapal’s attendance is that all the votes she missed were during two days she was out of town, an understandable absence for any working professional. Senator Nelson said:

“All of the votes she missed occurred during those two days when she — along with many members of our caucus, including our top two budget writers — were out of town.”

This claim is as false as it is easy to disprove. I don’t think it will take a slide deck to explain that it would be very difficult to miss 106 votes in two days, but suffice it to say that the most cursory glance at her voting record shows that she’s missed votes on 32 different days.

However, 36 of the 106 skipped votes did take place on Mar. 28–29, meaning that while this reduces the number of days she missed, two of them were big voting days. In fact, in those two days Senator Jayapal missed more votes than Walkinshaw has in his entire term, which has been a year longer and 25 roll calls more than Jayapal’s.

Her vote didn’t matter

The last line of argument about Jayapal’s voting record is that she only missed the budget vote because there was no feasible way her vote would have made a difference.

Had Sen. Jayapal been needed, she would have been there. However, her absence changed absolutely nothing in the result.”

The budget was passed by a vote of 27–17. A total of five legislators were absent from the vote, or 10 percent of the chamber’s 49 Senators. Four of the five were Democrats one of whom was Democratic State Senator Ranker who explained:

“However, our votes would not have changed the outcome of the budget vote. In fact, there were four Democrats who missed those same votes and, more importantly, a vast majority of our caucus voted no as this was the Republican’s proposal and unfortunately, they had the votes to pass it with or without us.”

It’s tough to call how close a vote has to be before every vote starts counting. Technically speaking no vote “changes the outcome” of a vote unless it is a vote for the winning side or results in a tie. A margin of 10 votes might sound like a guaranteed victory, but in a legislature of 49 Senators, five of which are absent from the vote, it’s fair to wonder if it could have been close. In fact, had the attendance been inverted and the Republicans lacked four of their number while the Democrats only one, then the vote would have been a relatively tight 24–20.

There are good reasons to skip Senate votes, but remember that what you’re weighing them against is a core part of the democratic process.

After all, the reason we hold votes is because we don’t know what the outcomes will be and because there’s value in the process. Surely a progressive fighter like Pramila Jayapal recognizes the importance of representing her values and constituents even when it is a losing battle. Her most prized endorser Bernie Sanders once protested the first Gulf War to an empty Congress, and I doubt it was because he thought it was going to stop the war machine.

So on one hand, showing up to vote on “lost cause” bills can conflict with a speaking engagement or a fundraiser that might do a lot of good, but it is as much a part of representing your constituents as the votes that do get passed. And that’s why votes always matter. Because they are how we measure what the voters want, which etches the writing on the wall for the future. A close vote this time can mean a closer vote next time.

There are good reasons to skip Senate votes, but remember that what you’re weighing them against is a core part of the democratic process.

Why did she miss the vote?

Walkinshaw’s ad specifically alleges that Jayapal skipped the budget vote, “So she could raise money for her campaign in New York.” It can be a little unclear how true this assertion is based on the statements made by Jayapal, who has maintained that she missed the budget vote primarily because India’s ambassador to the U.S. had invited her to speak at the Indian Embassy about growing participation by South-Asian Americans in U.S. politics.

Senator Jayapal speaking at the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. on Mar. 28. Photo courtesy India in USA

The message is somewhat muddied however not only because the speaking engagement was on Mar. 28 in Washington D.C. while the Senate budget vote was on the evening of Mar. 29, but because she managed to attend fundraisers in both Washington D.C. and New York on her two-day trip. The New York fundraiser was held with Claire White the same day as the budget vote. Jayapal made a statement to KOMO News in June that said:

“And that was actually the only date that I gave when I was not going to be in town. So, I didn’t skip [the budget vote] for a fundraiser, I scheduled some fundraisers around that Indian Embassy speech that I was giving.”

However, Jayapal had previously said via email to The Seattle Times in March that, “When special session was announced, we were asked … to give dates that we absolutely could not be there,” Jayapal wrote, adding that she provided two dates she couldn’t be in Olympia. But, “Unfortunately, the vote was scheduled by the majority party during that window.”

So it’s a little unclear if she missed the budget vote “because of her fundraisers,” but she could have comfortably made it back from her speaking engagement in D.C. in time for the budget vote. That said, it sounds likely that the events were planned in advance. Jayapal told The Times that she scheduled the trip for, “almost a month after session was scheduled to end to ensure there was no conflict.”

A tale of two budgets

Whether this was the main reason she skipped the vote, or just an unwillingness to reschedule, if you are one to believe that you vote with your feet, then Senator Jayapal did vote on a budget that day, the budget for her Congressional campaign.

A legislators primary responsibility is to legislate.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with skipping a vote to raise funds on the East Coast, but there’s nothing wrong with the Walkinshaw campaign to raise it as a challenge either. Sorry Senator Nelson, but it’s neither desperate or ridiculous to point out that on that day, a day with seven roll call votes, Senator Jayapal wasn’t at work, nor had she been for the 29 votes the previous day. A legislator’s primary responsibility is to legislate.

From left to right: Dan Nainan, Appen Menon, Pramila Jayapal, Dr. Thomas Abraham and Saji George at the New York fundraiser on Mar. 29. Photo courtesy americanbazaaronline.com.

Bottom line

Voting attendance is just one part of a legislator’s credibility, but the Jayapal campaign would make it seem so irrelevant that Walkinshaw might as well have criticized her for how little she can bench press. Yes there’s a larger conversation to be had about overall body of work in the Senate, but there’s no reason that conversation can’t begin with a look at attendance.

There is no favorable way to look at Senator Jayapal’s attendance. It’s not just bad, it’s terrible. To claim that it’s a consequence of being in the minority party is nothing but an excuse. It’s terrible compared to Walkinshaw, it’s terrible when compared to all members of the state Congress, and it’s terrible when compared only to other minority-party members.

There is no favorable way to look at Senator Jayapal’s attendance. It’s not just bad, it’s terrible.

Senator Jayapal is a popular local politician and that is despite missing the budget vote along with 105 others since taking office. If she truly believes that attendance isn’t an important measure of effectiveness then she should make that case to voters. One way of doing so would be to be more forthcoming about her fundraisers and to simply say, “Yes, I could have made it back to waste my vote on the sure-to-pass-budget, but do you know what I can get done with this money? You’re not going to be sorry.” The fact that she hasn’t done that might indicate she knows that’s unlikely to catch on.

In short, the Jayapal campaign’s response to Walkinshaw’s ad isn’t just libelous and bullying, but it’s a weak response even when attempting to be substantive. For a bunch of elected officials, they seem quite willing to downplay the importance of voting, except of course, when what’s being voted on is themselves.