A Woman in the House

Will 2018 be the year of the black woman in Boston?

Massachusetts’ primary elections will be held on September 4—the day after Labor Day, regrettably—and while there are several interesting intra-party races across the Bay State this season, far and away the most compelling is the Democratic nominating contest for the 7th congressional district between incumbent Michael Capuano and his challenger, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley.

District 7—encompassing most of Boston and a handful of surrounding towns—is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the state (only one-third of its residents are white), yet it has been represented for the last 20 years by Capuano, a straight white man, who has not faced a serious challenger from either party since his first campaign in 1998.

The main reason for this—apart from the historical tendency for incumbents to be re-elected at a near-100 percent rate—is that Capuano, 66, is an unabashed across-the-board liberal who has consistently spoken and voted in the interests of his constituents since the day he took office.  (Among other things, he boasts perfect ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Human Rights Campaign, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the NAACP.)  As such, the good people of the 7th district have found little reason to make a change in who represents them on Capitol Hill.

Until now.

Ayanna Pressley, 44, who has been resoundingly re-elected to the Boston City Council biennially since 2009, is gunning for Capuano’s seat without any particular beef with his record or worldview.  Offered the chance to differentiate her political views from his, Pressley is wont to change the subject or talk herself into a corner, underlining the awkward fact that when it comes to the proverbial issues, there is virtually no daylight between these two candidates.  Line-by-line, pound-for-pound, Capuano and Pressley embody two sides of the same liberal coin.

Pressley’s real argument—enunciated in every interview and every debate—is that there is more to being a congressperson than having the right views or voting the right way.  That in a district where being left-of-center goes without saying, it is equally (if not more) important that a representative possess the life experience and perspective necessary to champion the needs of America’s demographic underdogs, of which her district contains multitudes.

As a black woman with a turbulent upbringing (she speaks of being the victim of multiple sexual assaults in her youth), Pressley presents herself as precisely the sort of person District 7 needs in 2018:  A poised, energetic, indefatigable advocate for her fellow women and people of color, prepared to stand toe-to-toe with House Republicans in defense of everything from abortion rights to criminal justice reform.  If she and Capuano are more-or-less ideologically interchangeable on paper, Pressley is the one with real skin in the game—and, by implication, will fight just a little bit harder for the kind of society her district wants and deserves.

The down-and-dirty truth is that Pressley is running for Congress as if Capuano didn’t exist—or, more precisely, as if his were an open seat and Capuano had no institutional advantage and deserved no benefit of the doubt.  (Capuano regularly cites his seniority as a virtue.)  She is running, in short, because she wants to—and why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Indeed, if this race weren’t a referendum on a 20-year incumbent, it would almost surely be Pressley’s to lose.  Beyond being a black woman in a minority-majority district, Pressley is the more polished public speaker of the two, as well as the more photogenic and the one more adept—for better or worse—at inspiring a rambunctious, loyal following among her would-be constituents.

Does this mean she’ll win the primary on September 4?  The polls say no—an August 2 survey had Capuano ahead, 48-35—but then again, the polls also said Joseph Crowley would beat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York on June 26, and look how well that went.

By any measure, Michael Capuano has been a faithful, passionate and effective representative of Massachusetts’ 7th district these past 20 years (I lived there for eight of them).  His defeat, should it occur, would be a major loss for the people of Boston.  Then again, a victory by Ayanna Pressley would almost surely be a major gain.

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