Comity club

Capuano, Pressley largely in sync at forum on race issues

WHAT IF THEY gave a war and nobody came?

That call for peace was invoked during protests against the Vietnam War, but it could also describe the first campaign forum featuring Rep. Michael Capuano and his Democratic primary challenger, Ayanna Pressley.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and US Rep. Michael Capuano at the May 4 forum on racial justice at Roxbury Community College. They are facing off in the Democratic primary for the House seat Capuano first won in 1998. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

The session on racial justice, held Friday night at Roxbury Community College, gave voters their first side-by-side look at the candidates. But those who thought it might be the scene of the first shots fired in the race instead watched a truce break out.

“I agree with everything the congressman said about systemic racism,” Pressley said in one typical exchange.

Not to be left out of the comity club, Capuano had his say at another point on the same topic: “I agree with everything she said.”

And on it went, with the two candidates largely in sync throughout the 90-minute forum moderated by Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins. Topics ranged from immigration reform to gerrymandering and environmental justice, with little daylight to be found between the two liberal-leaning Democrats.

A smiling Ayanna Pressley following the forum at Roxbury Community College.

“For those of you who came here to see a fight, you won’t see it here, and you won’t see it anywhere else,” Pressley said, suggesting the tone would carry through to the September 4 primary. “I respect the congressman and his contributions. This has less to do with anything that the congressman hasn’t done and more about what I bring and what I will do,” she said of of her decision to challenge the 10-term incumbent.

When Pressley, a five-term at-large Boston city councilor, announced her primary challenge in February, she conceded that there was little to distinguish her positions from those of the veteran congressman. Both hew strongly to the left, a good fit for one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country. Pressley said her case would rest largely on offering voters new representation from someone who views issues with a “different lens.”

That lens has been shaped, she said, by her background and a wide range of life experiences. Her status as an African-American woman looking to the crack the state’s all-white congressional delegation is certainly part of that.

Michael Capuano posing for a selfie with an audience member after the forum.

The 7th Congressional District is the only one of the state’s nine House seats where non-white residents account for a majority of the population — about 62 percent — though minority voters will make-up a much smaller share of the primary turnout, about a third of all voters. The district includes about 70 percent of Boston, all of Chelsea, Randolph, Everett, and Somerville, and about half of Cambridge and Milton.

For Capuano, an Italian- and Irish-American son of Somerville, there was one overriding goal at a forum on racial justice in the heart of Boston’s black community: to show that he is as passionate and committed to the issue as his African-American challenger.

“Racism is real,” he said. “It exists today. It’s not something we read about. It impacts people every single day.” Capuano said was proud of his record “fighting racism at every level,” reaching back to his days as Somerville mayor in the 1990s when he says he pushed to diversify the ranks of the city’s police and fire departments.

He cited his 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP, and name-checked — twice — two prominent black House colleagues, civil rights icon John Lewis and Maxine Waters of California, who have endorsed his reelection.

Capuano touted his ability to work with people to get things done. But only once did he make explicit reference to the clout he would carry as a 10-term incumbent should Democrats take control of the House in this fall’s election, probably the most potent reelection argument in his campaign arsenal.

Anger “in and of itself doesn’t accomplish much,” said Capuano. “Anger turned into positive energy does. When that energy turns into hopefully a Democratic House, that’s when my seniority and my experience really comes into play for this district and the issues we’re going to talk about tonight. The agenda changes, the priorities change.”

For her part, Pressley, too, was more veiled than direct in making the case for bringing more diversity to the state’s congressional delegation.

“We are good at celebrating diversity in Boston,” she said, pointing to ethnic parades and flag-raising ceremonies that abound. “But ultimately we need to do more than celebrate diversity; we need to honor it. And honoring that diversity is about shared power.”

Both candidates lamented low voter turnout among low-income and marginalized communities, but the topic also brought one of the few moments of disagreement.

It’s not that people “don’t vote because they’re ignorant and don’t know better,” said Pressley. “They don’t vote because they know too much.  And there’s been a deficit of trust and broken promises.”

She put the burden on those with more power to change that equation. “It is us up to restore people’s relationship with government so that they are motivated to participate,” she said.

Capuano, known for his brusque, street-wise manner, saw things differently. “I’m not so sure I agree that people who don’t vote know too much,” he said. “My argument is if they know that much, they should be out voting their interests.”  Pointing to immigrants across the world who are “dying to come into this country” and gain the right to vote, he said, “to not exercise that right, as far as I’m concerned, is unconscionable.”

Capuano’s comments reflected a more mainstream Democratic Party view: If lower-income and minority voters showed up at the polls at the same rate as other groups, the candidates and causes he and Pressley support would benefit. Pressley’s answer reflected a more complicated reckoning with power and an understanding of why some people have largely given up on the political process as a way to make meaningful change.

One of the more surprising exchanges on the role of race came when Pressley praised Capuano for the diversity of his congressional office staff.

“Oftentimes,” she said, “people place all of the power on the principal because they underestimate that the people behind the person are often whispering and informing — what are the policies they need to develop? And informing how they should be thinking about those.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Capuano said, thanking her for raising the subject. “We have some uncomfortable discussions in my office because we have to. My African-American staff will yell at me if I’ve missed something,” he said, ticking off other groups also represented on his staff, including Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and the gay community. “Everybody brings a different perspective to the table. They’re all valuable and they’re all important.”

With that, Capuano affirmed Pressley’s main message about the value of bringing a “different lens” to issues — but echoed the argument she also seemed to make that a different lens can result when an officeholder is surrounded by staff members who reflect a wide range of backgrounds.

While the forum did not feature any of the fireworks that Pressley says some may have shown up expecting to see, both camps probably considered it a good night.

For Capuano, it was important to show he could engage thoughtfully on race issues, which loom large as part of the backdrop to his first primary challenge since winning the seat in 1998. For Pressley, who more than held her own on stage alongside him, it was the first of what she hopes will many such events reinforcing the idea that the district could be capably represented by someone other than the guy who has spent the last 20 years in Washington in that role.

As the candidates mingled with the crowd after the forum, one middle-aged white man was clearly impressed by both of them and seemed torn by the choice he now faces. He greeted Capuano by saying he wished the congressman’s opponent was challenging the more moderate incumbent Democrat in the neighboring district. “Why couldn’t Ayanna be running in Steve Lynch’s district,” he said to the congressman.

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.

“That’s life,” said Capuano.