‘Long Overdue’: Liberal Voters Hold Firm to Biden’s Stronger Safety Net

SEATTLE — In the bluest congressional district in the Pacific Northwest, Democrats range from liberal to even more liberal.

So as their party moves toward passing a watered-down version of President Biden’s domestic agenda, voters in Washington’s Seventh District, which includes most of Seattle, wrestled this week with a range of feelings.

Anger at holdout Democrats in the Senate. Staunch support for bold social spending. And a strong desire for their newly high-profile representative, Pramila Jayapal, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to play hardball, as well as a fingers-crossed hope that she knows just how far to push things.

Seattleites sense that after long seeing left-wing priorities bargained away in Congress, progressive politics are ascendant. The most liberal Democratic voters, so wary of Mr. Biden during the party’s 2020 primaries, now largely see him as taking their side. Many believe the Democratic Party of Barack Obama is now closer to the Democratic Party of Bernie Sanders.

Ken Zeichner, a retired professor, said that if Democrats didn’t stand firm on their priorities now, “we’re never going to get it.”Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

“There’s some real major things that have been long overdue,” said Ken Zeichner, a retired professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

He listed the addition of dental and hearing benefits to Medicare, affordable child care and aggressive action on climate change — all items in Mr. Biden’s domestic spending bill, originally priced at $3.5 trillion. “If we don’t stand the ground now, we’re never going to get it,” he said. “It will be another 50 years of Republicans getting in.”

Mr. Zeichner applauded Ms. Jayapal, who led a blockade of a vote in the House last week on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in order to exert leverage for the more sweeping package. In doing so, she angered a cohort of moderate Democrats.

Mr. Biden told Democrats privately that their agenda would have to shrink, to perhaps no more than $2.3 trillion, to win the support of two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Ms. Jayapal has reportedly pushed Mr. Biden not to go that low.

“I’m 100 percent behind her,” Mr. Zeichner said as he entered a food co-op whose window was inscribed with a checklist of Seattle values: The store was “a weapon-free environment,” a certified organic retailer and “powered with 100 percent renewable energy.”

Chosen last year to lead nearly 100 progressives in the House, Ms. Jayapal has vaulted from the back bench to a position as a highly visible strategist and spokeswoman. Liberals in her home city this week took a kind of victory lap along with her, even as moderate Democrats from more competitive House seats around the country, who are worried about losing elections next year and the Democrats’ majority along with them, accused Ms. Jayapal of political gamesmanship.

Jaya Wegner, 23, said some of her friends were so worried about climate change that they were considering not having children.Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

“Giving up too much is not where we want to be now that so many people are in need,” said Jaya Wegner, 23, who is studying to be a nurse. Her top priorities, she said, were universal health care and tackling climate change. Friends of hers under 30, she said, were considering not having children because of the calamity the planet could face in their lifetimes.

Even voters who identified as more center-left Democrats, who believed generally in the value of compromise, faltered when pressed on what programs they would cut in the White House’s Build Back Better plan, whose original $3.5 trillion in spending was to be raised with tax increases on rich people and corporations. Universal free preschool? Expanded Medicare benefits? Support for poor and middle-class families with children? Incentives for power plants to cut fossil fuels and for drivers to buy electric cars?

There were few takers for trading away any of those.

It seemed to reflect that even though Mr. Biden’s approval ratings are slipping nationally, polls show that a majority of Americans favor many of the initiatives in the Build Back Better plan.

Lisa Secan, 69, a retiree who called herself a “liberal Democrat” but said she leaned “more to the middle than the far left,” was nervous that Ms. Jayapal’s unwavering strategy was making the perfect the enemy of the good.

“I think that we’re in a space right now where we need more people to compromise,” she said.

But Ms. Secan backpedaled a bit when asked what Democrats should compromise on. “That’s a tough call, because I do believe we need more money for social programs and health care,” she said.

Green Lake Park in Seattle. The city’s politics, once relatively evenly split, have grown far more progressive. Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

At an outdoor mall, Richard Johnson, 59, a rare Republican voter, was exercise-walking between upscale outlets selling Peloton bikes and Teslas. He said that passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill was “necessary” and that he was dismayed Ms. Jayapal had blocked it. He was equally unhappy with the liberal drift in the city where he has lived all his life. “We’ve got to get more Republicans here,” he said.

Ms. Jayapal, 56, was born in India, graduated from Georgetown University and ran an advocacy group for immigrants before entering politics. Known by her colleagues in Congress as a hard worker, she has become a ubiquitous guest on cable TV.

Last year she won re-election with 83 percent of the vote, so she is in no danger of moving too far left for her base. Washington’s Seventh District is one of the most heavily Democratic congressional seats with a white majority in the country. Seven out of 10 residents are white, followed by 14.6 percent of Asian heritage.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, who was elected last year as the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has pushed for bold social spending.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Ms. Jayapal’s progressivism reflects the evolution of Seattle. Once dominated by blue-collar Boeing workers and split between the parties, it is now dominated by employees of Big Tech, most notably Microsoft and Amazon. The city’s politics have shifted leftward, though there are schisms over the local issues of housing costs, policing and homeless people.

The nonpartisan mayor’s race next month features two left-of-center candidates, one who promises 1,000 housing units for the homeless within six months, and a rival who wants to end single-family zoning and to redirect police spending to social programs.

“I don’t know who’s going to win the mayor’s race, but I do think it is a metaphor for the tensions within the Democratic Party, and between white people who are very sympathetic to Black Lives Matter but aren’t ready to say ‘defund the police,’” said Ed Zuckerman, a longtime environmental leader in Seattle. “Those tensions are epic in the Seventh District.”

The dividing line between traditional liberals and the party’s progressive wing is often generational, he added, with the inflection point around age 35.

As Mr. Zuckerman spoke at an outdoor table at the Portage Bay Cafe, Miles Cohen, 41, who works in tech, leaned over and said, “I’ve been eavesdropping, and I really appreciate all that you said.”

Mr. Cohen expressed nervousness over how, he said, progressives in Congress led by Ms. Jayapal had taken the infrastructure bill as “a hostage” in negotiations. But he later clarified that he was baffled by what it would take to reach a deal with Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema. He said that if hardball tactics were needed, “I can get on board with them.”

Miles Cohen said he could support tough tactics if they were necessary to reach a deal with centrist Democratic senators like Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema.Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

Tino Quiroga, who was picking up his 14-month-old son from preschool, was another voter who praised the idea of compromise — and then drew a tougher line when it came to the policies he prized.

“There’s an element of needing to be able to pass something that is less partisan that would be able to pass now rather than waiting for something that includes everything,” he said. Mr. Quiroga feared that Democrats would lose the House majority in the midterm elections “unless we’re able to deliver on some things.”

But one priority he wants Democrats to stand fast on is universal free prekindergarten. “My gosh, that is such a huge issue,” he said as he held his son, Nico. “That can actually transform a community.”

Mr. Quiroga, who works in tech, looked at his son and did some math about climate change. “When he gets to be my age — I’m 33 now — you know, in 32 years, the Earth is still going to be warming unless we do something now,” he said. Referring to Mr. Biden’s pledge to put the country on a path to cut emissions sharply and to his plan for universal prekindergarten, Mr. Quiroga said that “there are aspects of those that I wouldn’t compromise on personally as a progressive.”

With very few exceptions, voters were not steeped in the details of the social and climate policies that are wrapped into Mr. Biden’s agenda. To a perhaps surprising degree, Ms. Jayapal’s supporters trusted her to know how hard to fight.

“I’m not a moderate Democrat,” said Kathy Smith, a retired rehabilitation therapist in her late 70s. “I’m pulling for the whole thing.”

Ms. Smith was spurred to become an activist by the election of Donald J. Trump. She has made phone calls to voters in various swing states. But she deferred to Ms. Jayapal on where progressives should dig in their heels.

“Hopefully she will recognize when she needs to moderate her stance,” she said. “Right now she feels it’s not the time. And I kind of feel she knows more than I do.”

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