During a rainy rush hour at the exit of Maverick Station in East Boston on Tuesday, organizers for Ayanna Pressley handed out baked goods and plastic ponchos to potential supporters.
By vote tallies, Pressley is one of Boston’s most popular city councillors. Now, in a 7th Congressional District race that’s getting national attention, she wants to take to Washington her vision of greater equality in the district, which is one of the most diverse in the state.
The Massachusetts 7th is one of the most progressive seats in the country, Pressley said, “and that means we should be leading, we should be innovating, we should be bold, we should be legislating, and I want to do that work with you,” she said to cheers from supporters.
Pressley is challenging incumbent US Rep. Michael Capuano, who has been in Congress since 1999.
Both left-leaning Democrats, the candidates agree on many issues, so they are highlighting the issues that separate them. Capuano says he has the depth of experience that proves he can represent all his constituents. Pressley points out that inequality remains despite his years in office.
Dorchester, Mattapan on the table
Capuano’s camp highlights a hefty history of progressive bona fides during his time as a congressman. He has long supported Medicare for all and was behind one of the country’s first sanctuary city acts, in Somerville. Both positions are in line with modern left wing political goals.
Looking at communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, Capuano highlights the millions off dollars in federal funding he secured for the Whittier Street Health Center, He also points to his championing of the Fairmount Line, including spending some $53,000 of campaign funds to promote two weeks of free ridership last spring and urging investigations into discrimination along the line when it was reported that cars were being repurposed to other lines.
Pressley, a Chicago native, has called Dorchester her home for years. She and her family live in the Carruth Building by Ashmont station. As a city councillor, she has often taken positions with her eye focused on citywide equity, an advocacy informed by her history as a black woman and a survivor of abuse. The first woman of color to serve on the Boston City Council, Pressley pushed for and then chaired a new committee on healthy women, families, and communities.
She has tackled liquor licensing reform, and seen chunks of new licenses issued to historically underinvested-in areas of Boston, and she has called for better trauma supports in schools and communities where violence is an all-too-common reality.
The candidates split along just a few national lines, as judged by a 60-question survey by Progressive Massachusetts, which has since endorsed Pressley. She wants to defund ICE; he does not. He supports a federal jobs guarantee; she is undecided. She supports limiting solitary confinement to 15 days and eliminating it for at-risk populations; he supports keeping it to protect vulnerable inmates from the general prison population. She opposes legislation making assault on a police officer a federal crime; he and all the other members of the Massachusetts delegation voted for the Protect and Serve Act in May (he noted that the act codified existing laws). She would make Election Day a federal holiday; he said voting can be improved through other measures like early voting and two-day voting periods.
So for constituents looking for clear daylight between them on votes, their options are slight.
If endorsements play a factor, Capuano has bulked up his support from Massachusetts heavyweights, including his House colleagues, Mayor Martin Walsh, and former governor Deval Patrick. Attorney General Maura Healey, city councillors Michelle Wu and Annissa-Essaibi George, and state Rep. Russell Holmes are in Pressley’s corner.
In late August, more endorsements were rolling in on both sides. Massachusetts Peace Action, an affiliate the nation’s largest grassroots peace and disarmament membership organization, endorsed Capuano as did the Human Rights Campaign. More than 20 clergy members endorsed Pressley on Wednesday, including Rev. Liz Walker, Rev. Mariama White Hammond, Rev. Minard Culpepper, and Bishop William E. Dickerson.
On the ground
The district goes beyond the city, where Pressley polls strongest. It includes parts of Boston, Cambridge and Milton, as well as all of Chelsea, Everett, Randolph and Somerville, where Capuano once served as mayor.
Surveys have Pressley leading among people of color and younger voters, who, election analysts say, she needs to turn out to pull off an upset. “The goal is to do what I’ve always done, is to not make assumptions about communities, to meet people where they’re at,” she says, “to go to rooms where many elected officials don’t go — church basements, bodegas, beauty salons, and barbershops — to engage and to build community and to learn from people. And it’s been working.”
Still, by most accounts, Capuano’s incumbency gives him a major edge in the race for a seat he has held for two decades. A late-July poll by WBUR of likely Democratic voters in the district has him ahead of Pressley by 13 points.
Recently, at a campaign stop at the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly facility in Brighton, Capuano worked a mostly Chinese crowd with a tune. His message — translated into Mandarin, Cantonese and Russian — is decidedly anti-Trump: “President Trump has made it harder for everybody in the world to bring their families to America to join them. ... There must be something I agree with him on, but I honestly can’t think of it,” he says.
But he’s not taking that lead for granted. He knows he’s facing a serious challenger for the first time in his career as a member of the US House. He’s even canceling family vacations to do more campaign events.
“I had a long time — a little bit less so now — I had a long time,” he said, “when I was pooh-poohed by my friends, not by my opponents: ‘Oh, don’t worry, Mike, you’re going to be fine. Who would dare run against you? Why would anybody even consider not voting for you?’ ... I think most people now recognize this is a serious campaign. I’ve known it from the start. Which is good — they need to be energized, they need to be focused.”
This primary race is drawing national attention — with comparisons being made to a recent stunning upset in New York where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina woman, ousted Joe Crowley, a 56-year-old white male incumbent with high standing in the Democratic caucus in the Capitol.
In an interview, Stonehill College political scientist Peter Ubertaccio said that Crowley was viewed as out of touch. He added that the same cannot be said for Capuano.
So what does he think it will take for Pressley to beat the odds and win the primary? “It’s going to have to take extraordinary turnout,” he said. “Capuano has worked his district hard. He’s present, he is well known, and he’s obviously going to be well-funded. Now, some of his supporters will gravitate toward Pressley, and that’s to be expected. But in order for her numbers to match his, and to overcome them, she’s going to have to turn out a lot of new voters.” Pressley is well positioned to do that, he added, but he also said that Capuano is likely to hold onto his seat.
Either way, come the election results, the Massachusetts 7th will continue to have a progressive voice in Congress.
WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the organizations share resources to collaborate on stories. WBUR’s Simón Rios is currently working from the Reporter newsroom.