As civil rights icon Lewis backs Capuano, Pressley presses change agenda

While incumbent US Rep. Michael Capuano shores up his support with endorsements from high-profile federal elected officials of color, City Councillor Ayanna Pressley is going on the offensive in her quest for the congressional seat the incumbent has held since 1999.

“We have to start asking ourselves harder questions about what progressive values and leadership really mean and look like,” she said at an event at the African Meeting House Monday evening. “The depth of these challenges and the urgency of times demand activist leadership that bring the fight to Washington, not bumper sticker values that put talking points and political expediency before the families of the 7th District. Simply put, the job description changed.”

Pressley spoke against the backdrop of strong support for Capuano from US Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, who endorsed the congressman last week in Roxbury. In addition, the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Capuano last Friday. Former Gov. Deval Patrick, a powerful African-American political voice, and US Rep. Maxine Waters are also on record as supporting Capuano.

The stridency of Pressley’s statement marked a departure from the largely civil tone the two struck a few weeks ago at a Roxbury forum on racial justice that was hosted by Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins. Given that the 7th Congressional District is the only majority-minority seat in the state’s federal delegation, the outcome in September may well hinge on demographics.

Standing in the Meeting House pulpit before full pews representing communities of color in the district, Pressley let fly her critique of Capuano. “My opponent has worked to frame this election as one of identity politics,” she said. “Earlier this year, he said the only thing he could not be was a black woman. Let me be abundantly clear: I am black and I am a woman. And I embrace both of those facts. But to suggest that the only difference is my race and my gender is wrong and toxic. And the voters of the 7th Congressional district aren’t buying it. The issues I have worked on my entire life transcend my identity.”

Pressley leveled part of her critique at the idea that the lack of substantial policy sunlight between the two candidates makes the race one of identity politics. She said she plans to push policies to “expand economic opportunity for women and protect their rights to their own bodies,” common-sense gun reform, and support for communities “in trauma, the trauma that gun violence leaves in its wake,” transportation equity, and a clean DREAM Act.

At the Pressley event, Suzanne Lee, a former principal at Chinatown’s Josiah Quincy Elementary School and onetime city council candidate, praised Pressley’s work to bring communities of color with her into halls of power. She has known the councillor since 2009 when Pressley became the first woman of color to sit on the council in its century of operation. “It was the first time I thought that this was such a thing we can have with government, and what good government can mean,” she said. Pressley, Lee said, will “carry your voice” to Congress.

For his part, Congressman Lewis, in his endorsement, said, “It’s important to keep a leader, a fighter, and warrior like Mike Capuano around,” making the same case that other Capuano backers, like Mayor Martin Walsh, have put forward as reasons for their support: a strong record of voting for party issues, glowing grades from the NAACP and the ACLU, and a place among senior Democrats in the House who are hoping their party will reclaim the majority this fall. For many, a Democratic House with seasoned leaders at the helm takes priority over elevating new progressive voices to reliably progressive seats.

“People who have been around for a while, they know their way around,” Lewis said. “They know where all the bodies are buried and they know how to get things done.”

On Monday, Pressley countered that concept. “My opponent has said there is no difference between us because we might vote the same way on many issues,” she said. “But voting has never been the difference I have promised to bring. I don’t measure progress by a scorecard. I measure it with impact. And we haven’t seen it.”