Boston, Massachusetts, USA : Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley has defeated 10-term Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District.
Pressley, the first woman of color elected to Boston’s City Council is poised to become the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in the state’s congressional history.
“It’s not enough for Democrats to be back in power,” she said at her election night celebration. “It matters who those Democrats are.”
Pressley’s victory is indicative of the the broader success of female Democrats this election cycle. She joins a number of other black women who’ve won their primaries this year, including Stacey Abrams, who’s running for governor in Georgia, Lauren Underwood, running for a congressional seat in Illinois, and Jahana Hayes, who’s also running for a seat in Congress from Connecticut.
The Democratic Party has referred to African-American women as the backbone of the party, but in recent years, some black organizers have expressed frustration that the party has not invested in recruiting black candidates. Pressley’s victory is a sign that organizers and activists are no longer willing to wait for the party’s blessing.
It’s also a sign that issues of representation rather than ideology are motivating voters in Democratic primaries.
Pressley was long considered the underdog. Her opponent seemed to have the money and the loyalty of a popular incumbent. Plus, he had received the backing of local party officials, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and even from Deval Patrick, the state’s first African-American governor.
But Pressley ran an intense grassroots campaign, and although she and Capuano agreed on most policies, she argued that she was more in touch with voters in this majority-minority district
“It seems like change is on the way,” Pressley said to raucous applause at her election night party. “Ours was truly a people powered, grassroots campaign. … that dared to do what Massachusetts Democrats aren’t supposed to do.”
There is no Republican on the ballot in this Democratic bastion — an urban district that encompasses Boston, Cambridge and surrounding suburbs, much of the area once represented by a young John F. Kennedy, and now often called the “Kennedy seat.”
Capuano is only the second Democrat to lose a primary this midterm season, the first was New York Rep. Joe Crowley, who lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And, similar to Crowley, he was quick to concede. “Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman,” he said.
Polls had shown Capuano, who has never faced a serious challenge since being elected in 1998, with big leads. But Pressley defied the odds to not just win, but outpace Capuano so decisively that he conceded the race less than an hour and a half after polls closed.
She appears to have done it by turning out young people and people of color, neither of whom typically vote in party primaries. With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, Pressley had 58.4 percent, or 50,917 votes, to Capuano’s 41.6 percent, or 36,234 votes.
“Clearly the district wanted a lot of change,” Capuano told supporters.
Unlike Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., who was caught off-guard when he lost his own primary this summer, Capuano recognized the threat early. And unlike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat Crowley, Pressley has been a rising Democratic star for years.
“Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman and I will tell you that Massachusetts will be well served,” the defeated congressman said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who donated to Capuano’s campaign, thanked him for his long service, before saying she looked forward to welcoming Pressley to the caucus. The heavily Democratic district has no danger of falling into Republicans’ hands.
Capuano had no whiff of scandal and has a nearly perfect progressive voting record. But he hails from an older, more parochial school of politics which Pressley said didn’t cut it anymore in the Donald Trump era.
More importantly, Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District is the only one in New England where racial minorities outnumber whites and Pressley argued she could better represent the Boston and Cambridge-area district than Capuano, who is white.
“It’s not just good enough to see the Democrats back in power, it matters who those Democrats are,” Pressley told her own supporters. “While our president is a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man, the conditions which have made the 7th CD one of the most unequal in America were cemented through policies made long before he ever descended the escalator at Trump tower.”
Pressley, too, took a moment to praise her opponent, recalling moments when they shared a bullhorn at local political rallies and demonstrations. “He forced me to bring my best, just like in this,” she said.
While there was little ideological daylight between the candidates, it’s another victory for the insurgent left, which has seen its biggest successes with candidates of color who embrace progressive ideology, such as with Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Ocasio-Cortez, who vocally supported Pressley.
“The winning strategy in the future of the Democratic Party points to exciting a broad, multiracial coalition of the grassroots — new voters, young voters, and people of color,” said Mari Urbana, the political director of the liberal group Indivisible.
Urbana said Indivisible has been pushing Democratic voters to get more involved in primaries, where individuals can often have a bigger impact, and Pressley’s victory is proof of that strategy. “It’s just such a big deal for the entire movement,” she said.
Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, an African-American neighborhood in Boston, said residents there have dreamed of getting a person of color in the district. In fact, it was specifically redrawn to make that possibility more likely.
“They were taking up not only the hope of Pressley as a congresswoman, but the hope that this community will finally get some of their issues heard and addressed from someone who truly understands them,” said Brown, who endorsed Pressley.
Pressley has spoken often about being raised by a single mother because her father was incarcerated or struggling with addiction, and her campaign focused on themes of racial, economic, and geographic inequality.
Most elected Democrats in Massachusetts and Washington sided with Capuano. And Brown said he was disappointed to see the Congressional Black Caucus prioritize loyalty to a fellow incumbent over the possibility of growing their ranks.
“I don’t even know if she should join the Congressional Black Caucus. None of them supported her,” he said.
Even those who did not endorse Pressley for political reasons have said nice things about her.
“I’m excited for her. I’m really feeling enormous sense of pride for what’s she’s accomplished,” former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said Tuesday night. “I’m happy for Massachusetts.