BOSTON—Most politicians running for higher office don’t publicize embarrassing tales of personal physical harm.
But on a scorching mid-July morning, Ayanna Pressley, a 44-year-old Boston city councilor seeking to become the next progressive candidate to knock off a well-known white male Democratic incumbent, regaled a group of kids about that time she fell off her treadmill.
“A girl got on the treadmill next to me,” she told a group of young, mostly African-American girls at a summer basketball clinic at Wainwright Park in the neighborhood of Dorchester. “And she had a cuter outfit on and she was running even harder and her form was even better. And I was so busy watching her that I fell and cracked my tooth on the treadmill.”
Pressley’s tale was an altogether human one: a former high school track runner trying to find her way back into shape. But it was a political metaphor too—one that she was applying to her own candidacy.
“Now that is a lesson for life,” she said, peering down at the girls underneath a sun hat. “I was so busy looking at her race that I wasn’t focused on my own. You have to run your own race.”
Pressley has run races before, having been the first woman of color elected to the city council in its century-long history. But this cycle, she is trying something altogether different. She is challenging Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) in Massachusetts’ 7th District, a swath of land that includes most of Boston and parts of Cambridge and Somerville.
The broader dynamics of the race—a progressive woman of color taking on a long-term white male incumbent in a majority-minority district—have clear similarities to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset bid in New York’s 14th Congressional District. And Pressley is certainly eager to duplicate that upset when voters go to the polls on September 4.
“That is my sister in change,” Pressley told The Daily Beast on a nearby park bench after she took a free throw shot on the basketball court and posed for dozens of pictures. “I’m so proud to be with her in solidarity. There’s a natural synergy and alignment in so many ways, in terms of our convictions, our values.”
But the similarities between the two races aren’t quite precise. Capuano is certainly a member of the political establishment, for however vague that term may be. He was mayor of Somerville from 1990 until he ran for Congress, where he has served since 1999. But unlike Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), who lost to Ocasio-Cortez, Capuano is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He’s a reliable blue vote in a reliably blue state, holding the storied John F. Kennedy seat.
That he is now being challenged from his left has resulted in some fellow progressives feeling conflicted.
It’s also left Capuano—or, rather, his team—a touch rattled. He’s unsure if Ocasio-Cortez’s race has drastically changed the landscape across the country. But, he admitted, it certainly “woke up some of my friends.”
“I don’t respond to attacks,” Capuano said in an interview with The Daily Beast, when asked what he thinks of the suggestion that he and other incumbents might not be progressive enough. “If somebody wants to talk to me about my record, that’s fine. As long as you know what I’ve done, and if you judge it to be insufficient, I respect that.”
On the stump, Pressley is open about the difficult path she took to get to this point. She discusses the fact that her father was incarcerated for much of her childhood, that she is a survivor of sexual abuse and assault, that she wants more women and girls to feel empowered in their daily lives. And she’s not afraid to encourage others to be open about their own trials as well. On the basketball court, lined by a fence with a Black Lives Matter sign, she asked for a show of hands to see how many of the kids went through the same ordeals she endured. Many of them had.
Her campaign is built on building a sense of community among those who have felt abandoned or neglected or, worse, harmed. At Pressley’s headquarters, tucked away in a strip mall in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, a sign reads: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policy making.”
The theme of being left out of the political process is similar to those driven home by Ocasio-Cortez. So too are many of the main policy points stressed by the candidate—from Medicare for All to the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The overlap is operational too. Pressley is set to get a boost on the ground from some Ocasio-Cortez staffers in the coming months.
But Pressley is hardly the same type of political figure as her counterpart from the Bronx. While Ocasio-Cortez, just 28 years old, had a swift rise from bartender to Democratic superstar, Pressley has long been viewed as someone with a promising future within the Democratic party.
Originally from Chicago, she has been a fixture of Massachusetts politics for years. She worked for former Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D-MA) and former Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), before being elected to the City Council in 2009. In 2015, she was honored with the Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award from EMILY’s List, a group that is dedicated to electing progressive women to office.
And yet, Massachusetts politics has proven to be a difficult place for politicians, like Pressley, to progress. The state’s congressional delegation has been fairly homogenous for most of the time she’s lived here. And those elected to office tend not to leave, enjoying the fruits of incumbency. Notably, EMILY’s List has declined to endorse Pressley against Capuano even though she definitionally aligns with the group’s fundamental objective.
“She is extremely talented, and we believe that she will always find a way to fight for working families and promote progressive values,” Julie McClain Downey, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List said. Downey noted that the group simply doesn’t endorse in primaries against pro-choice Democrats, which Capuano is.
It’s not just them. Capuano also has the support of everyone from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and former Democratic Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick.
Running against a long-term incumbent with all the political machinery against you is not an impossible task. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) managed to pull it off in his bid for Congress in 2014. But it’s not an easy one either.
“I’m not just going to inherit some victory because of AOC’s [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] inspiring run and win,” Pressley conceded. “I have to make my case to voters. I am still an underdog.”
Pressley’s case is further complicated by the fact that there aren’t as many sharp contrasts with Capuano as Ocasio-Cortez enjoyed with Crowley. Capuano’s team has pointed to the fact that he is a longtime supporter of Medicare for All legislation, that he did not attend President Trump’s inauguration, that he voted against the Iraq War, and that he did not support the Homeland Security Act that created ICE.
What Pressley has going for her is a broader political climate that seems favorable to candidacies like her’s. Women have been winning Democratic primaries in bunches this year and Capuano has not faced a serious primary challenge since being in office. The district, which was redrawn in 2011, is the state’s only majority-minority district and one in which, as Pressley points out, there is high income inequality.
Gulping down the last remnants of a cold brew coffee before jetting off to a Boston City Council hearing, Pressley suggested that one major hurdle she had to face was convincing others that her campaign was not just an attempt to raise her profile.
“I think what was hardest for me was in the early days of announcing my candidacy, how often I had to defend my right to run,” she told The Daily Beast. “I had not anticipated that. I’m not some ambitious upstart. I didn’t think anyone would think for a second that this a vanity run.”
She described Capuano as having gone “unchallenged and unchecked” and cited the fact that he has served in office since winning only emerging from a crowded 1998 primary with just 23 percent of the vote.
“Every two years, I’ve had to defend my record, offer new ideas and re-earn the confidence, the trust and the partnership of the electorate and I have no contempt for people that have challenged me,” Pressley said.
Pressley’s view is that the modern political landscape and the changing demographics of this district necessitate more “activist leadership.” That voters, who have come to expect Democrats to back policies favored by their liberal constituents, are looking for something more than a good voting record. “My work does not end at the vote,” she said.
As an example, Pressley said she would vote the same way on gun control reform as Capuano would. But after that, she suggested a litany of other actions to back up any federal bill on the local level, including advocating for “trauma-sensitive and informed schools” and equitable access to a school nurse, social worker or guidance counselor.
“There’s the vote on the floor of Congress, but then there’s the work and the impact here,” she said.
Pressley is also, unlike Capuano, refusing to take PAC money, a pledge taken by all candidates endorsed by the organization Justice Democrats. Instead, she is banking on grassroots donors, her name ID in Boston, and activating lower-propensity voters throughout the district.
Some political observers in the area think that the formula she’s using could produce a contested primary battle, especially due to the district’s redrawing.
“It’s hard to compare districts with different boundaries,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Northeastern University. “But I will say, it creates challenges for incumbents or representatives just because a constituency that they had been cultivating is shaken up in such a way that they have to appeal to new voters and a constituency that’s at least partly different. Those are the kinds of races in which we see incumbents being most vulnerable.”
The most recent poll of the Pressley contest, conducted in February, showed Capuano with a 12 point lead. And, unlike Crowley, the congressman hasn’t allowed himself to be portrayed as aloof or above a challenge for his seat.
“I believe in democracy,” he said of his new challenge. “I believe anybody who wants to run for office should run for office, put their name on the ballot and go through the process. See what people want.”
All of which makes it a bit harder for Pressley to do what Ocasio-Cortez did. Races where an incumbent has not been tested politically in many cycles, and where the electorate may have changed, may be fertile ground for an electoral upset. But it certainly helps to have the element of surprise. And after Ocasio-Cortez, no Democratic incumbent is likely to be caught off guard.
Pressley is pressing on though, searching for the electoral formula to become the next big progressive success story.
“Stick with it,” she told the girls on the court. “There’s something to be said for perseverance.”