A few weeks before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her New York congressional primary, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley spoke to roomful of young Democrats at the Bell-in-Hand, a Boston tavern that dates back to 1795. She was explaining why she should unseat a congressman who, she suggested, might as well have been in office for that long.
It wasn’t that her opponent in Massachusetts’ 7th District, 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano, had a voting record that was objectionable, or had neglected the district for a national profile—the standard complaints you hear in a primary challenge. Instead, it was a question of approach, of personal history translated to legislative priorities, of the value in filling Massachusetts’ only majority-minority district—currently served by a 66-year-old white man—with a 44-year-old black woman who has experienced the struggles of the inner city. Pressley talked, with a lyrical lilt, about growing up in Chicago with a single mother; her father’s incarceration; her survival of sexual assault. She said she’d draw renewed attention to the economic and social disparities within the district, the way income and life expectancy vary precinct by precinct.
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“Voting the right way is one thing,” Pressley told the group. “But I want to lead, and I want to legislate our values.”
The Pressley-Capuano contest, which takes place Sept. 4, is not just another battle in the civil war between the Democratic Party’s progressive left and its moderate center. Instead, this race tells a different story about the party, and its clogged pipeline of talent.
After a powerless spell in Donald Trump’s Washington, Democrats are standing on the brink of a majority—at least in the House. Now, they have to think about standard-bearers as well as standards. As loyal congressional soldiers like Capuano have waited for a crack at leadership, the party’s generational rift has grown. The would-be 2020 frontrunner, Joe Biden, is 75. The average age of a Democrat in Congress, at the start of the current term, was 61. The top House Democratic leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, are pushing 80. And more than 50 Democratic candidates have said they won’t support Pelosi for speaker if they win, saying it’s time for a new crop of leaders to take the party forward. Democrats across the country are wondering: Is the current congressional leadership a fount of institutional knowledge and skill, or a calcified establishment? To combat Trump effectively, do you need a seasoned hand, or do strange times demand new faces and new voices?
Those are among the party’s most pressing divides, says Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari, who notes that today’s ideological fault lines are far narrower than they were in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton took unorthodox stances on NAFTA and welfare reform. Today’s progressive-versus-moderate debate might make headlines, Azari says, but “my read on the majority of the Democratic races is that this is not the debate people are having. The debate they’re having is about process and the power of the party.”
Pressley, whose campaign slogan is “Change can’t wait,” hopes to capitalize on the Democrats’ self-reflection, and on the wave of enthusiasm that propelled so many women and minorities into politics this year.
“She’s not so much pointing the finger and saying, ‘Michael Capuano, you stink.’ She’s asking the voters in the district to hold themselves accountable. Is it OK that we’re voting right and not getting it done? Is the way it’s working enough?” says former Massachusetts Democratic Party chair John Walsh. “And it doesn’t have to be a choice between good and bad. It can be a choice between good and better.”
But in practical terms, that’s a hard pitch for a primary challenger to make. For all the buzz Pressley has gotten among national Democrats, especially on the left, Capuano leads her in fundraising and has won most of the race’s high-profile endorsements (though some politicians have been conspicuously neutral). The most recent polling has him up by 13 points. Incumbency is powerful, and for Democrats, that creates an internal challenge: A party with a bench problem, and a stated desire to diversify, still offers few chances for a promising newcomer to edge her way in. Ayanna Pressley is talented enough to be the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a progressive sensation who energizes the left in races all over the country. But first, she needs to actually win.
If your politics run progressive, there are few better places to live than Massachusetts’ 7th, which cuts a north-south line through some of the most left-leaning precincts in America. The district includes the limousine-liberal paradise known as the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the increasingly unaffordable hipster haven of Somerville, the racially diverse suburbs of Chelsea, Milton and Randolph, and 70 percent of the city of Boston. It is Massachusetts’ only majority-minority district. In the 2016 election, 84 percent of its voters supported Hillary Clinton.
Capuano, who served as mayor of Somerville in its pre-hipster gritty days, has represented the district since 1999 (prior to the post-2010 redistricting, it was Massachusetts’ 8th, with similar boundaries). Pressley is Capuano’s first primary challenger, and the race has drawn a flurry of national attention, especially in the hours after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, when the two women exchanged supportive tweets.
On the surface, the contests look similar: younger woman of color taking on white male establishment figure. But like most congressional races, this one is its own beast. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley is neither unknown nor anti-establishment; she has spent nearly a decade on the Boston City Council, after years as an aide for Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Joe Kennedy II.
And unlike Rep. Joe Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez’ ill-fated opponent, Capuano, who has the low-key bearing of a likable neighborhood guy, is hardly ignoring the primary challenge. He’s attending debates, holding events across the district, maintaining that voters—seeing little difference in the candidates’ political positions—will stick with someone who’s reliable, visible and known. And to his liberal constituents, he’s making the case that he is best-placed to stand up to the president. Capuano is the antithesis of Trump on every issue, often outspokenly so. He refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, instead holding office hours for residents worried about the new president’s policies. This summer, at the height of the separation of immigrant families, he toured a border patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, and posted missives about it on his Facebook page.
But for all that, he’s laser-focused on his district. “A national message has never worked and it never will in a congressional race,” he said after a recent event at a senior center in Chelsea. “It’s one-to-one, old-fashioned street work.”
Part of Capuano’s confidence comes from the power of incumbency, measured in relationships built and raw dollars won. He has racked up the vast majority of the race’s big endorsements, from teachers’ unions, nurses’ unions and high-profile politicians such as former governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. (Massachusetts’ rising-star attorney general, Maura Healey, is a notable exception.) Supporters say he has helped secure funding for many progressive causes: affordable housing projects, community health centers and rail lines that serve minority neighborhoods. They also note that he is the only Massachusetts member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and, in a future Democratic majority, is poised to chair influential subcommittees on the transportation and finance committees.
If Democrats take back the house, re-electing Capuano “would be Boston’s best interest, the region’s best interest, and that can’t be underscored [enough],” says Roy Avellaneda, a Chelsea city councilor and former aide to a Massachusetts state senator. He joined Capuano at a senior event in his immigrant-heavy, often-struggling city, and ran off a litany of projects Capuano has helped secure.
“There are so many institutions in the greater Boston area that rely on federal support,” Avellaneda says. “I don’t think we should be risking all of those benefits for a change of face.”
That’s one reason much of the political establishment blinked when Pressley announced her candidacy at the end of January. Beating an incumbent is notoriously hard. Capuano was well-liked and scandal-free. Why even try?
One answer lies some 30 miles north, in Massachusetts’ 3rd district, where six-term Rep. Niki Tsongas announced last summer that she wouldn’t run for reelection—and a flood of candidates rushed into the race. They range from a veteran state senator to a 20-something Latina state representative, several local business owners, Marty Walsh’s deeply-connected former chief of staff, and a onetime finance chair for President Barack Obama who served as ambassador to Denmark.
In the 7th, by contrast, Pressley stands alone. And for an ambitious political player, her candidacy is a rational move, says John Walsh, who knows from experience: He managed Deval Patrick’s 2006 campaign when Patrick was a long-shot candidate for governor.
“You can just wait for somebody to get tired, or they get sick and die, and you can jump into a 13-person field,” Walsh says. “Or, if you have something to say, you can just run.”
On the Boston City Council, Pressley’s signature work has hewed close to her personal history. Her biggest projects have ranged from supporting pregnant teens and revamping sex education in schools to expanding liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods—which she pitched as an issue of economic justice.
“I believe that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power driving and informing the policies of our government,” she told a group in May at Boston’s African Meeting House, to broad applause.
But what Pressley, on the trail, calls “lived experience,” Capuano has called identity politics. “Look, I cannot be a woman of color,” he told local NPR affiliate WBUR in February. “And if that’s what people care about, that’s fine. I accept that, I understand that. I just don’t think there are that many people who will vote for me because I’m a white male or vote against me because I’m a white male.”
Indeed, Capuano’s signs, like Pressley’s, are abundant in Boston’s black neighborhoods, and he has won endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and representatives Maxine Waters and John Lewis, the civil rights icon. In May, Lewis, in town to deliver Harvard’s commencement address, also headlined a joint event with Capuano at Boston’s historic Twelfth Baptist Church, praising his colleague for support on issues like gun control and urging the crowd to “turn out and vote like we’ve never voted before.”
For a few days, the Lewis event was the talk of political Boston, with some calling it out as cynical political theater—among them the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, the church’s outspoken associate pastor and a Pressley supporter.
“A white representative, you know, grabs a black person of national prominence, and an organization of national prominence, to get them to endorse him so that it would make black people in his district feel that it was all right to vote for him,” Brown says. “That has been an action that has been played repeatedly over the years by white candidates … but yet you accuse Ayanna of identity politics.’”
Pressley, for her part, claimed to be unfazed. “We’re doing something disruptive,” she said in an interview, matter-of-factly.
Political animals—of which Pressley is unquestionably one—understand the inherent tension between protecting incumbency and encouraging a pipeline of new talent. The wall of support incumbents receive is a barrier to entry. But it’s not insurmountable, and Massachusetts has recent proof: In 2014, Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton waged a successful Democratic primary challenge against longtime Rep. John Tierney, who was vulnerable due to a family scandal, but still had his party’s institutional support. (Moulton has remained neutral in this race.)
“The voice of the Democratic Party will say we have to encourage new voices, new people, diverse voices, and all that,” says political consultant Scott Ferson, who advised Moulton in that race. “Which is true, but it’s not the party’s job to do that. It should be, but it can’t be. Because the party is there to protect incumbents. It just is.”
Still, many progressives this season are arguing that the playbook needs to change—and that successfully combating Trump requires a different type of opposition.
“We clearly don’t have enough women and people of color in office,” says Mike Lux, co-founder of the progressive consulting group Democracy Partners, who says the Democrats need “people who have new and different ideas—not just about issues, of course that’s great, but about how to do things, how to shape things, how to stir the pot.”
At moments like these, some point to term limits—a pet issue for Trump—as a way to ensure that change. Polls show term limits as broadly popular, but political scientists warn against the unintended effects; Azari says a churn of personnel in Congress would give far more power to moneyed interest groups. Even John Walsh, a veteran of renegade races, scoffs at the idea of forcing fresh blood. “To me it’s like, well, the voters are too stupid to pick the right person, so we have to remove options from them,” he says.
This season, as political insiders squabble, voters have been making their own choices—and despite the hype over Ocasio-Cortez, Democrats across the country have been breaking moderate and pragmatic at least as often as they’ve gone for upstarts. For every Kara Eastman, who defeated the establishment candidate in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, there is a Laura Moser, a progressive who lost badly to moderate Lizzie Fletcher in Texas’ 7th.
In Massachusetts’ 7th, in a quiet off-year primary, past voting patterns seem to support the status quo, says Massachusetts pollster Steve Koczela, who conducted the most recent WBUR/MassINC poll of likely voters in late July. While the district is majority-minority in terms of residents, Koczela notes, it has a high volume of nonregistered voters, immigrants and non-voters. His latest poll showed that Pressley leads Capuano among nonwhites and voters under 49. But in the 2014 primary, two-thirds of the people who turned out on election day were white.
So Pressley’s challenge is to bring new people to the voting booths, translating vague frustration with the status quo into a pressing sense that change requires a changing of the guard. At the Bell-in-Hand in June, where moderate Democratic activists mingled with more outspoken progressives, Pressley gained at least one fan: Caesar Nuzzolo, 24, who said he was moved by “this really being a fight for the soul of our party.” He doesn’t live in the district. But he’s “excited by this one particular race, especially because this doesn’t really happen so much in Massachusetts.”