Capuano, Pressley tout assets with soft touch

For each, pushing their strong suit carries risk

It usually goes without saying that candidates look to play to their strengths and highlight what makes them stand apart from rivals in a race. But sometimes those strengths have to be showcased more in the form of a delicate dance than by hitting voters over the head with them.

That’s what seems to be unfolding in the Democratic primary showdown pitting veteran congressman Mike Capuano against Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.

The contest features a 20-year veteran of Washington who will wield real clout if Democrats regain the House against an up-and-coming figure who would become only the second black person ever elected to Congress from Massachusetts and one of only a handful of women ever sent to Washington from the state. But the candidates seem to be walking a fine line in pushing those arguments, each of which also carries some potential downsides.

There is no real daylight between Capuano and Pressley on issues. Both are advancing a hard-charging liberal agenda, laced with lots of requisite outrage at the direction the country is being taken by Donald Trump. The logical questions, then, are what distinguishes them and why should liberal-leaning voters toss out a reliable voice who has been fighting their fight on Capitol Hill?

When she kicked off her campaign in February, Pressley spoke repeatedly about bringing a “different lens” to the position.

“Are you saying that different lens comes because you’re an African-American woman?” WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti asked her.

“Of course,” Pressley said. “Everyone has their own authentic and unique lens. When you have issues that are being developed through a completely monolithic and homogenized prism, everyone suffers for that.”

Pressley has leaned heavily into the idea of a “different lens” rather than explicitly citing race and gender as arguments for her candidacy.

“Of course representation matters,” she said when pressed on the race and gender issues in an interview with CommonWealth at the time of her announcement. “But it is not why I’m running.”

Meanwhile, for Capuano, there’s a lot of hay to be made out of the seniority the district would give up by trading him in for Pressley. But he’s mostly leaving that argument to others to make.

When he discussed his recent endorsement of Capuano, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made the congressman’s seniority a big plus, especially in light of an increasingly favorable outlook for Democrats to regain control of the House.

With Democrats now poised to take the House back “and make some real strong policy changes,” Walsh said, Pressley could certainly make a contribution. “But there’s a difference in being a voice and someone in a leadership position. That makes a big difference about how it benefits Massachusetts.”

For his part, however, Capuano has downplayed seniority as a factor in the race.  Though he would be line to chair two important subcommittees if Democrats win back the House, he told the Globe he doesn’t plan to make it a campaign issue. Earlier this month he told CommonWealth that he wasn’t sure whether it would become an issue.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. He said most voters don’t care about that sort of issue, even though Capuano said they should. “It’s inside baseball that should matter to the average voter. Like it or not, seniority matters in the House,” he said.

Peter Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College, said it’s not surprising that Capuano and Pressley are both treading lightly on things that are strong arguments for their campaigns.

“The danger is that you end up being pigeonholed by those things,” he said.

“In Capuano’s case,” Ubertaccio said, “we live in a populist moment, so talking about your power relative to others in an institution may just remind people that you’ve been in that institution for a long time.”

Katherine Einstein, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University, said Pressley also faces a risk in promoting too explicitly things like race and gender, which are, in fact, also part of the argument for her run. “We know that when people themselves highlight the salience of those issues it has the potential to turn off parts of the public that don’t fall into those race and gender groups,” she said.

Einstein said that’s why the speech on race issues that Barack Obama delivered in the closing days of the 2008 campaign “was such a big deal.” His talk was largely a response, however, to controversial comments on race made in sermons by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. “It would have been very surprising if he had done that if he were not forced into it by even stronger racial rhetoric,” Einstein said of Obama’s speech.

As for Capuano, she said, he’s right that it’s hard to translate the “inside baseball” of congressional seniority into an inspiring campaign message. “If you think about what would make for a good campaign ad, committee chairmanships and seniority probably aren’t it,” she said.

Former Boston city councilor Tom Keane is watching the careful choreography of the race play out with some bemusement. He vied against Capuano in the Democratic primary for the then-open House seat in 1998 when Joe Kennedy left office. The race this year has a similar feel, even if it has a smaller field.

“I think there were something like a thousand people running, and 990 were exactly in lockstep on every single position,” he said of the 1998 contest. (For the record, Keane was engaging in a bit of hyperbole; there were 10 Democrats running in the primary.)

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Though he understands the ambivalence Capuano and Pressley have shown in highlighting what sets them apart, “it’s all appropriate stuff to talk about,” he said.

“It’s perfectly legitimate for these people to distinguish themselves by where they are coming from,” said Keane. In weighing which candidate to support, he said, “how they will vote is an element, but hardly the most important element.”