Posted on August 21, 2018

One of the Strongest Progressives in Congress Is Facing a Primary Challenger Invoking Identity and Change. Will She Unseat Him?

Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani, The Intercept, August 18, 2018

In a recent debate aired on Radio Boston, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley delivered an unusual mantra for her bid to unseat incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano, declaring that she would vote in a nearly identical way as her opponent. “We will vote the same way, but lead differently,” she said.


A different type of race is taking shape in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District, a seat comprised of downtown Boston and surrounding suburbs. Though media outlets across the country have labeled the Pressley challenge in Massachusetts as the “next Ocasio-Cortez,” the race differs from other progressive challenges to entrenched Democrats: Pressley’s policy positions are frequently indistinguishable from her opponent.

In a race between two similarly positioned politicians, how important is identity?


There are some similarities between Ocasio-Cortez’s and Pressley’s bids: Pressley is black, meaning that, like Ocasio-Cortez, she is a women of color running to unseat a white man in a majority non-white district. But, unlike Ocasio-Cortez and Eastman, both of whom ran with sparse political resources — few campaign dollars and virtually no major establishment endorsements — Pressley is backed by major donors and powerful figures within the Democratic Party’s elite. According to Politico, Pressley, a former aide to then-Sen. John Kerry, was urged by the “donor class” to make her run. Federal Election Commission reports show she has raised over $1 million, more than double the amount raised by Ocasio-Cortez and more than triple the amount raised by Eastman before election day.

While Ocasio-Cortez and Eastman won by sharply criticizing the moderate voting records of their primary opponents, Pressley has demurred repeatedly when asked to point to major policy areas in which she disagrees with her opponent.

{snip} She has been endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and Democracy for America. Meanwhile, progressive groups are seizing upon the Pressley campaign as an opportunity for change.

“Congressman Mike Capuano has been a fine, progressive member of Congress, but having an experienced progressive like Ayanna Pressley on the ballot is an unmissable opportunity for Massachusetts to both ensure a leading woman of color represents its only majority-minority district and add the voice of just one person of color to New England’s currently all-white congressional delegation,” said Jim Dean, chair for Democracy for America, in a statement. Jonathan Cohn, co-chair of Progressive Massachusetts, explained that his group also endorsed Pressley over Capuano because of the “need for more diverse representation in Congress and the need for more activist leadership from Democrats in Congress.”

Justice Democrats, the new advocacy PAC spearheading progressive primary challenges across the country, endorsed Pressley over Capuano. Alexandra Rojas, a spokesperson for the group, said the group “would like to see fresh leadership, especially from women and people of color, in one of the few majority-minority districts in the country represented by a white man.”

Capuano suggested in a one debate that his identity was less important than his track record of working on behalf of a diverse community. “There is a majority of no one in this district,” said Capuano. “No race, no ethnicity, no religion, nothing. So anybody who sits in this seat has to be able to work with people that don’t look like them, people that don’t think like them, people that don’t worship like them — and has to be able to bring people together.”

Capuano, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, blazed an unusual path on Capitol Hill. He has championed “Medicare for All” for over a decade, helped establish the influential Office of Congressional Ethics, and, as Congress has increasingly abandoned its corporate oversight responsibilities, has made a name for himself dressing down the chief executives of big banks, airlines, and other industries for engaging in fraud and abuse.


The local campaign cash may yet become an issue in the House primary. The Boston Globe found that Pressley may have used local city council campaign funds to hire her current federal campaign staff, a potential violation of ethics rules.


Abolish ICE

Another contrast the Pressley camp has drawn for attention — that she recently endorsed defunding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while Capuano has not — is also more complex than the talking point would have it. Capuano voted against the establishment of ICE in 2003, but has recently said that the agency should be reformed, not abolished. Instead, Capuano has said, efforts should be focused on changing immigration policy — an area where he shares virtually all of Pressley’s positions.


Real Estate Development

While finding distinctions between the two candidates’ positions can be difficult, the candidates have been intensely questioned by local media about the issue of housing. In one of their debates, Capuano declined the opportunity to criticize luxury real estate developments in Boston, while Pressley flatly answered that there are too many luxury developments and not enough affordable housing, proposing a “rent relief” tax break for residents spending high proportions of income on housing.

On occasion, however, Pressley has voted on the city council to approve luxury real estate developments, recently voting to support the $1.3 billion luxury Winthrop Tower development, she said, because the builders pledged to include minority businesses. Following the vote in April, Pressley received $1,250 in campaign contributions from the developers of the project, records show.


“What I’m saying is that I will sit at the table, and compromise and work with anyone in the name of progress,” Pressley said. “But there are things that I’m unwilling to compromise and to negotiate on, and that is the rights of women, of immigrants, of workers, and the LGBTQIA community.”