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In Mass., a primary fight probes the importance of ideology vs. identity

Why We Wrote This

Voters in Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District are weighing whether Democratic leaders need to better reflect the growing diversity of the party’s base – even if it means sacrificing seniority in Washington.  

Charles Krupa/AP
Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is challenging incumbent US Rep. Michael Capuano, greets supporters after a debate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston Aug. 7.

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Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District, which includes most of Boston and Cambridge and a coterie of blue-collar towns reshaped by rising immigration, was redrawn in 2011 to create a first in the state: a seat in which blacks, Hispanics, and Asians made up the majority of voters. At the time, Democratic officials predicted it would make it easier for a minority candidate to win. Now, Ayanna Pressley, an African-American city councilor challenging incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano in the district’s Sept. 4 Democratic primary, is testing that theory. Ms. Pressley’s campaign is less about ideology – Congressman Capuano is a solid progressive – than a generational push for change from within the party’s base, which is younger and more diverse than its leadership. “I think we need more leaders who are women, and women of color particularly,” says supporter Shauna Helton. Capuano has been reminding voters of his seniority in Washington and his success in securing federal spending for the district. “Anybody who gets elected in this district has to work with people who don’t look like them,” he says. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

Two minutes after she slides into the pew, Ayanna Pressley is back on her feet. She walks to the dais, thanks the church leaders who invited her up to speak, and turns her smile on the 50 or so African-American worshippers at the Berea Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

It’s the final leg of the state primary campaign and Ms. Pressley, a city councilor, is running for a congressional seat in this Democratic stronghold. Her challenge is less about ideology – the incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano is a solid progressive – than a generational push for change from within the party’s base, which is younger and more diverse than its leadership. Her slogan, “Change can’t wait,” speaks to a national frustration with the party’s top ranks.

Today Pressley, a 44-year-old African-American, makes her pitch in the language of devotion. She reminds the congregation that she was the first woman of color ever elected to the council. “Amen,” they cry. And the top vote getter, three times. “Amen,” they cry again. 

She runs briskly through her public service and the Sept. 4 primary ballot, then pivots back to the power of prayer. “I’m reminded of an African proverb that says when you pray, move your feet,” she says. The crowd whoops. She repeats it, and adds: “So I’m moving my feet.”

Pressley’s run has drawn comparisons to that of first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in June toppled New York Rep. Joe Crowley, a 20-year veteran and member of the House leadership, in the biggest upset of the Democratic primary cycle. And it’s an outcome that Congressman Capuano, a former mayor first elected to Congress in 1998, is anxious not to repeat. He has racked up local and national endorsements (though not the Boston Globe), debated Pressley four times, and hustled for votes all summer.

On the stump, Capuano hammers his progressive voting record, constituency work, and anti-Trump activism, including visits to detention centers in Texas to probe family separations. He also reminds voters of his seniority in Washington and his success in securing federal spending for his district. Should the Democrats retake Congress, his position on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could bring home more of that bacon.

But Capuano also calls the primary – his first in 20 years – a “family fight” that distracts from the party’s bigger battle with President Trump and Republicans in Congress. “We don’t have very many differences, none that I can really articulate,” he says, referring to Pressley.

Pressley concedes that her opponent’s record on key issues is in sync with her own politics. But she argues that there is a distinction. “By and large, we will vote the same – but we will lead differently,” she says, pointing to her record of activism and coalition building.

Pressley’s supporters argue that she can galvanize a diverse national coalition that Democrats need to roll back the Republican grip on power in Washington. That so many women and people of color are running for office this year in Democratic primaries shows that President Obama’s departing call to action is being heard, including in deep-blue Massachusetts.

“Elections are about hope and the idea that things can get better. If Democrats want to win this cycle and in 2020, we’ve got to get back to that place of providing hope, and Ayanna is that hope,” says Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which is supporting Pressley and other African-American Democrats seeking elective office, including state and local races.

“I think we need more leaders who are women, and women of color particularly,” says Shauna Helton, who works for a nonprofit in Boston. “I think it’s a fairer representation for the people in the district.”

The Seventh Congressional District includes most of Boston and Cambridge and a coterie of blue-collar towns reshaped by rising immigration. In 2011, it was redrawn to create a first in Massachusetts: a seat in which blacks, Hispanics, and Asians made up the majority of voters. Democratic officials said this would make it easier in the future for a minority candidate to win office.

Capuano points out that his seat had become majority-minority even before the map was redrawn, and says he welcomes its changing makeup as its representative. “Anybody who gets elected in this district has to work with people who don’t look like them, don’t worship like them, don’t think like them. I think that’s what democracy is all about,” he says.

By taking on Capuano, Pressley is jumping the line for Democratic advancement, says Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who studies primaries. Incumbency remains powerful, and so is party leadership. Still, analysts say that hierarchy – waiting your turn for higher office – didn’t stop Elizabeth Warren from making her successful run for the Senate when the seat became vacant.

Capuano’s district, a safe seat for Democrats, is understandably appealing to a rising star like Pressley, even if it’s a tough fight, says Professor Boatright. “If you’re an ambitious officeholder in one of those districts, you don’t want to wait around for a retirement,” he says.

Pressley says she’s been a “foot soldier” for the party and rejects the idea that she should wait to run for higher office. “My [late] mother who sacrificed so much... did not raise me to ask permission to lead, and I’m not raising my 10-year-old daughter to do that either,” she says.

Pressley is one of three women challenging incumbents in the state’s Democratic primary. In the eighth district, Brianna Wu, a software engineer, is challenging Rep. Stephen Lynch, a centrist Democrat. A third incumbent, Rep. Richard Neal, faces a neophyte challenger in western Massachusetts, though neither race has gotten as much attention as Pressley’s.

Polls have shown a solid lead for Capuano. While whites are now in a minority in the district, they still tend to cast a majority of votes in low-turnout elections like party primaries, according to MassINC Polling. Still, estimating minority turnout can be tricky: This week, Andrew Gillum, a progressive Democrat serving as mayor of Tallahassee, overcame a steady deficit in the polls to become Florida’s first African-American nominee for governor.  

On a recent afternoon, Capuano and a small group of supporters stood at a busy Boston junction, hoisting signs and waving to passing cars. Some honked when they saw the lawmaker, who wore shirtsleeves and a wide grin.

Among the volunteers that day was Danny McCauley, who runs a nearby funeral home and calls himself an independent. He voted for Trump in 2016, a decision he says he’s begun to regret. Now he wants to see the Democrats retake the House and reckons that Capuano would be a great asset for his district. “It’s not time for change when the gentleman is doing his job,” he says.

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