Pressley: ‘I can’t and won’t wait my turn’

Pressley: ‘I can’t and won’t wait my turn’

Boston city councilor kicks off congressional challenge to Capuano

AYANNA PRESSLEY SUCCINCTLY handicapped her race for Congress in her formal kickoff speech on Tuesday night. “Our campaign won’t be easy,” she told 300 supporters at a Cambridge restaurant. “We’re facing an 18-year incumbent. But you know what else? They’re facing us.”

With that, the five-term Boston city councilor acknowledged her underdog status – but also offered a glimpse of the moxie she’ll bring to her Democratic primary challenge to US Rep. Michael Capuano.

It’s a charismatic appeal and energy that rocketed Pressley to the top of the citywide council balloting in her first reelection race seven years ago. And the first woman of color ever elected to the council now hopes to ride an insurgent wave of enthusiasm nationally for women and minority candidates who are stepping forward in response to a Trump presidency many see as hostile to both women’s issues and minority communities.

Put all that together and political strategists say it would be a mistake to write off Pressley’s chances, even if she starts out as the clear underdog.

“Anybody who thinks that Ayanna doesn’t have a chance in this race is misreading the dynamics of the political environment that we’re in right now,” said Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who helped steer Deval Patrick’s insurgent victory in the 2006 governor’s race. “There’s a lot of energy at the grassroots for candidates like Ayanna, and I think there’s going to be a lot of excitement and energy around her campaign.”

Ayanna Pressley gets a kiss from her husband, Conan Harris, following her campaign kickoff speech, while her stepdaughter, Cora, looks on.

A new WBUR poll released on Thursday morning seemed to underscore that point. The survey of likely Democratic primary voters carried out by MassINC Polling Group showed Capuano ahead, but with Pressley only 12 points behind less than two weeks after entering the race. Capuano garnered support from 47 percent of likely voters while Pressley drew support from 35 percent.

By most any reckoning, Pressley would be well-positioned to compete for the House seat representing the state’s 7th Congressional District, which has a population that is 59 percent people of color and is chock full of liberal white voters in Cambridge and Boston. The one hitch: She is not competing for an open seat, but challenging a popular incumbent with a long record as a progressive stalwart in Congress.

Capuano will be looking to remind voters of that fact at every turn – and he’s likely to get lots of backing from other elected officials, who tend to rally around other incumbents facing a challenge. Fellow congressman Steve Lynch has already said he’s with Capuano, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has sent nice words his way.

Meanwhile, Capuano, who served 10 years as mayor of Somerville before winning the congressional seat in 1998, telegraphed in an interview last week with WBUR what some Democrats are thinking about the intraparty scrum. “I think it’s a little unfortunate that we have to spend time and money on a family fight,” he said.

Pressley sought to get past those issues by addressing them directly at the outset of her speech Tuesday night at La Fabrica restaurant in Central Square.  “I am running for Congress against the wishes of many good Democrats,” said the 44-year-old Dorchester resident. “I’ve been told to wait my turn. I’ve been accused of naked ambition. I’ve been called a traitor for challenging an incumbent, told simply this isn’t the way things are done here in Massachusetts.”

She then reeled off a host of issues she said are only becoming more pressing, from housing costs to immigration policy, the addiction crisis, income inequality, and “systemic racism.”

“When the challenges we are confronted with are this big, this deep, and growing, I can’t and I won’t wait my turn,” she said.

Pressley, who has acknowledged that she and Capuano would likely vote the same on almost all issues, returned to the theme she sounded last week when she first confirmed her long-rumored plan to challenge him. “It’s time for a new lens, a new approach, a new voice,” she said. “I am running for Congress to be bold in the face of a destructive Republican Congress and resolute within our own Democratic caucus that there’s no such thing as a moderate position on civil or LGBT rights,” a woman’s “right to choose,” immigrants’ rights, or universal health care.

Pressley has been coy about the extent to which that new lens is one she would bring as an African-American and a woman. “It goes without saying,” she said when pressed in an interview last week at City Hall. “Of course representation matters. But it is not why I’m running.”

She said the new lens also has to do with bringing a whole set of different life experiences to the race, from growing up with a single mother as the child of an incarcerated parent (her father battled addiction and was in and out of prison) to her experience as the victim of sexual assault. And she said in her kickoff speech that it also has to do with her view of elected office as a place “not only to meet people where they are and to reflect the temperature of the times” but to also help set that temperature.

In a nod to the intraparty “family fight” she has set off, Pressley ticked off issues that she said “all good Democrats care about” — whether it’s criminal justice reform, health care, or the scourge of gun violence – but said she would bring a fresh perspective. On gun violence, for example, she pointed to the work she’s done with an organization trying to intervene by counseling women away from straw purchasing and trafficking of guns for men in their lives.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, said the impulse in Massachusetts to wave off would-be challengers to sitting officeholders is unhealthy. “The wait your turn philosophy is stifling,” she said. “I don’t think it’s good for our democracy. I think we suffer as a Commonwealth when we continue to perpetuate this idea that incumbency is basically a lifelong appointment.”

She said it’s also fair to consider that women are vastly underrepresented in the state’s congressional delegation (they hold two of nine House seats and one of the two US Senate seats), while Ed Brooke, who served in the US Senate from 1967 to 1979, remains the only black ever elected to Congress from Massachusetts.  “Hopefully more contested races will help us achieve the kind of diversity that we are hoping for,” said Sullivan.

Pressley says she well-positioned to compete in a district that is nearly 70 percent Boston precincts, where she has appeared on municipal ballots every two years for the last decade. The district also includes Chelsea, Everett, Randolph and Somerville, as well about half of Cambridge and Milton.

While its reconfiguration after the 2010 census made the 7th the state’s lone majority-minority congressional district, as MassINC Polling Group’s Steve Koczela pointed out last week, the profile of likely primary voters is quite different, with whites making up two-thirds of those casting ballots in the district in the 2014 Democratic primary.

Pressley will also need to show some fundraising chops in order to mount a strong campaign across the district’s seven communities. Politico reported that Pressley raised $100,000 in the first week after her announcement, an impressive start. The bigger test will be whether she shows continued fundraising strength in the first quarter finance report this spring.

The real X factor in the race, however, may be less quantifiable. If Pressley’s ability to wow a crowd with her message of fierce progressive advocacy and opposition to Republican policies catch on, her threat to Capuano will come from being seen not just as a candidate, but as a cause.

It’s the same intangible quality that saw first-time candidate Deval Patrick leapfrog a sitting attorney general who was presumed to have the inside track to the Democratic nomination for governor 14 years ago. Or the star power that propelled another rookie candidate, Maura Healey, past Warren Tolman, a well-liked and seasoned Democratic figure, in the 2014 primary for attorney general.

With anti-Trump activism getting further juiced by the #metoo movement centered on women, the climate today seems even more conducive to that kind of insurgent campaign by a strong woman candidate. Unlike those earlier Massachusetts races, however, Pressley is not seeking an open seat and will have to convince voters to toss out a generally popular incumbent.

Compared to Pressley’s lofty talk of inclusion, “intentional advocacy,” and empowerment, Capuano’s street-smart style is decidedly more prosaic. To fight the race on his terms,  the 66-year-old veteran pol seems likely to try to bring the conversation down to the nitty-gritty realities of congressional work and the battles he’s waged over two decades in the House. As one Democratic operative sized up the contrast that may unfold: “Her aspirational vagaries will run into a Gatling gun of specifics.”

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.

For Sean Curran, a well-known political insider who served as Deval Patrick’s campaign finance chairman, Pressley’s lofty vision of change is just what the times call for. “My support for her is aspirational in nature,” said Curran, part of roster of early donors who have maxed out to Pressley’s campaign. “When Massachusetts speaks in Washington, especially to this president, I want talented and passionate advocates doing that work. I want leaders that innately amplify the voices of the most marginalized in our communities. Ayanna is a leader like that.”

(This story was updated to include information on the WBUR poll of likely Democratic primary voters released on Thursday morning. )