Capuano, Pressley contest seen as proxy fight for Democrats’ future

Suffolk Country Sheriff Steve Tompkins hosted a May forum on racial justice with City Councillor Ayanna Pressley and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano. Jennifer Smith photo

On the surface, the Democratic party has a clear goal in the midterm elections: win back Congress and fight tooth and nail against the Trump administration’s policies. But a deeper crisis is apparent on the homefront in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts 7th Congressional district, where incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and challenger City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley reflect a conundrum within the party about the value of progressive incumbency and seniority versus welcoming new blood and new lenses.

With the race all but over in 60 days — Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin set the primary for Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day and teachers’ first day of the school year, and there are no other candidates in the running for the seat in November’s general election — crunch time is rapidly approaching.

Capuano, 66, and Pressley, 44, have been hitting the pavement. The congressman is drumming up rounds of endorsements and remaining outspoken on national issues, while Pressley is powering through what she calls a community-driven campaign to elevate new voices to a national stage.

“Six months ago when I embarked upon this,” Pressley told the Reporter on Tuesday, “I just went into this and I said, “Ayanna, the is going to be lonely, it’s going to be uphill, it’s going to be bruising,” and here we are and my experience most days has been very much to the contrary.”

This is Capuano’s first Democratic primary challenge since he took office 19 years ago. The former Somerville mayor says he is taking the race seriously but keeping a fairly standard pace to his duties, at least as much as one can in a federal environment beset with constant political earthquakes.

“For me it’s, I don’t know, pretty normal,” the congressman said in an interview with the Reporter on Monday. He spends half the week in Washington D.C., then comes back to Boston to “do as many events as I can within reason,” he said. “Maybe quantity-wise a few things have changed but the basic approach has not.”

Immigration is at the top of Capuano and Pressley’s minds. The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy of separating families who crossed the border illegally was, to many, a particularly horrific approach to addressing immigration issues.

“I have to say the most important thing we’re pushing for is to keep the issue of immigration on the front burner,” Capuano said, specifically the family separations and delay in reunifications. He voted against the most recent immigration bill, which failed on the floor and had “numerous problems,” he wrote in a constituent update in June.

The incumbent was at the Mexican border last week along with other members of the Massachusetts federal delegation, and “it basically confirmed all the concerns that we had,” he said. “Particularly the concern that the border patrol -- well not just them, DHS (the Department of Homeland Security), the entire agency -- doesn’t seem to have their act together. I was really concerned on that trip because they couldn’t answer half our questions, and the few they did answer, five minutes later we’d get a little bit of a different answer form somebody else… this agency is truly confused.”

After long consideration, she said, Pressley came to the conclusion that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) should be abolished, which Capuano has stopped shy of calling for.

“I got to a point where I said, listen, given the abuses and the brutality and the profiling and the targeting, this is not an agency that can be reformed, it cannot be overhauled, and furthermore it is not strengthening our national security it is compromising it,” she said.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win over 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in New York caused much of the political establishment to scratch its head and do one of two things: write it off as an anomaly or look for direct parallels in every primary race with a woman of color challenging an incumbent man.

“Each race is individual,” Capuano said. “I think it’s silly to try to draw a lesson from one or two races nationally.”

There are some significant differences in the Massachusetts 7th and the 14th Bronx. Crowley seemed to many to be checked out of the race, even sending a surrogate to debate his young challenger, while Capuano “has not been asleep at the switch,” Pressley said, “this has been a competitive race from the beginning.”

She knows this well, and is focused on drawing out undecided voters or voters who have not previously felt moved to come vote in an uncontested election.

“Truthfully, we’re doing everything we can to meet people where they are and being intentional about engaging new people,” Pressley said, “but my candidacy and our campaign, much of that has happened organically.”

Both candidates are optimistic that the electorate is paying close attention to their race, and specifically the policies both candidates are floating.

This district, the only majority-minority district in Massachusetts, is angry, Capuano said.

“That anger is focused at [Trump] and I think it’s focused at people who are not standing up to Donald Trump, and I think rightfully so,” he said. “At the same time I think my actions, everything I say, all the votes that I’ve taken, all the policy I’ve taken up, they’re all aimed at Donald Trump.”

Pressley continues to note that their differences are not alone active voting lines -- “every Democrat is going to vote the same way” -- but in specific policies they look to push. She noted as examples advocating for trauma-sensitive informed schools, a survivors bill of rights, studying gun violence as a public health epidemic, repealing the Hyde amendment to remove barriers to reproductive health options.

As much as Capuano is no slouch when it comes to his campaigning, Pressley draws another distinction between herself and the 28-year old Ocasio-Cortez who she considers a friend and “sister in change.” This is not Pressley’s first election, holding her city council seat since 2009 as the first woman of color to be elected to the body, thrice topping the at-large ticket in competitive races in the years since.

“I’ve had to run and win, always being leaner and meaner in terms of resources. I knew he would be out-fundraised and outspent, we would be out-endorsed, but you know I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we’re not outworked.”

The congressman counts among his backers Mayor Martin Walsh and former Gov. Deval Patrick, with recent endorsements from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and the Mass Retirees. Pressley has received the support of several of her city council colleagues of late, including Michelle Wu and District 7 councillor Kim Janey, state Rep. Russell Holmes, and former Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair John Walsh. While the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee is backing Capuano, the National Women’s Political Caucus is in Pressley's corner. U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are both staying out of the race.

It is a lopsided money game, though. Capuano’s campaign said it pulled in $680,000 in the second quarter, compared with $370,000 on Pressley’s side. Capuano’s campaign said it now has $1.4 million in the campaign account.

In the middle of all such races is the question of seniority. Capuano is primed for high-ranking seats in influential committees should the Democrats retake the House, he notes.

“Every campaign, in my opinion, it’s about the future, what are you going to do tomorrow, and obviously people can make a better judgement on that based on what you’ve already done for them yesterday,” Capuano said. “And if the Democrats take the House back, look, it’s very important to have seniority in the House, it’s very important to have people who know what they’re doing in the House.”

The Massachusetts 7th Congressional seat is going to be held by a Democrat, as a given, but the strategizing based on the broader House of Representatives’ composition strikes Pressley as unhelpful.

“I don’t think the decision to advance [policy] should be based on whether or not we’re in the majority or the minority,” Pressley said. “We should not be considering what is the viability of this given the political landscape. We keep fighting. I hope we usher in a new blue wave -- I’m a faithful, proud Democrat -- but if we are in the majority what’s going to matter even more is who are those Democrats.”

Jennifer Smith can be reached at, or follow her on Twitter at @JennDotSmith