You may know Ayanna Pressley as the first woman of color elected to Boston City Council, or maybe from the 2016 New York Times list of “14 Young Democrats to Watch.” That description is even truer today — Pressley has gained national attention for her congressional race in which she hopes to unseat the nearly-20-year congressional incumbent Michael Capuano for the chance to represent Massachusetts’s 7th District in the House of Representatives.
Metro caught up with Ayanna Pressley ahead of the 2018 Massachusetts primary election on Sept. 4 to hear about why she decided to run and what she hopes to bring to Congress.
Ayanna Pressley on her run for Congress
You’ve been with the Boston City Council for 8 years, why did you decide to move on from that and run for Congress?
Ayanna Pressley: I am running for Congress because the 7th Congressional District is the most diverse, yet the most unequal district in Massachusetts, and we need inclusive, activist leadership to change that. The election of Donald Trump has highlighted and exacerbated some of those inequities, but they existed long before he entered the White House, and will continue to exist after he leaves, unless we build a movement to address these disparate outcomes.
This district, which is one of the most progressive in the country, needs a representative who will not only vote the right way in Congress, but who will also lead by building coalitions and working in partnership with the community to develop innovative policies and solutions for the diverse needs of this district.
What’s one thing you’re most proud of accomplishing in your time with the City Council and how will you expand on that in Congress?
Some of my proudest accomplishments on the Boston City Council are related to our work on behalf of women and girls. After being elected to the Boston City Council, I recognized that issues directly impacting women and girls were not receiving enough attention, so I created the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities. As chair of that committee, I championed the passage of a comprehensive sexual education curriculum in the Boston Public Schools, and worked to address policies that lead to the pushout of young women and girls. In Congress, I will continue to champion these issues. The unique lens and perspective that I bring to these issues means that I will elevate and lift up policy proposals and solutions on behalf of communities that far too often go unseen and unheard.
Many Bostonians know you since you’ve been on the council for years, but how are you connecting with those in the 7th District who many not know you as well?
During my career, both as a City Councilor and working for Senator John Kerry and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, I emphasized working in and with community to elevate the voices of those who are most impacted by issues in our district. When building this campaign’s Equity Agenda to address inequities from immigration to public health, we engaged constituents and advocates from across the district to ensure that different communities were able to share their perspectives and solutions.
Our campaign continues to make a proactive effort to reach everyone in the district where they are. I am so moved every day that so many of our volunteers and contributors are engaging in the political process for the first time, giving precious time and resources to help us build and sustain this movement. I believe that the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, informing our policies and our politics, and that is what we have set out to do.
Challenger Ayanna Pressley and incumbent Michael Capuano take part in a debate at UMass Boston on Aug. 7, 2018. Photo: Getty Images
Ayanna Pressley on inequality, family separations and electing women of color
What makes you stand out against Michael Capuano as the best choice for that district?
If you listen to what we prioritize — there is really a strong contrast in message and tone. Unlike my opponent, our campaign has been focused since day one on calling out the disparities and challenges of the district, all of which existed long before Donald Trump became President, and are only worsening under his administration.
I am the only candidate in this race that has laid out a comprehensive Equity Agenda to address the growing inequality in this district, and I have emphasized the need for activist leadership to reverse disparate outcomes in this district. In one of the most progressive districts in America, a reliable vote is not a profile in courage. We need bold, activist leadership that brings the fight to Washington.
My opponent and I, along with other Democrats from Massachusetts, would likely vote in a similar way, but we also have some significant philosophical and policy differences. I have rejected corporate PAC money during my Congressional campaign and will not accept it in the future if elected to Congress, while my opponent has accepted nearly $3 million in corporate PAC contributions during his career. Unlike my opponent, I am calling for the defunding of ICE in response to rampant abuses and the policy of family separations, because it should not be a radical notion to uphold the dignity of people and fight for the preservation of families. Recently, my opponent claimed that during the NFL protests, Colin Kaepernick was “wrong in the way he raised the issue” by taking a knee — while I stand in solidarity with those who would use their platform to protest racial discrimination.
You’ve made a lot of history already, like as the first woman of color elected to Boston City Council. Are you hoping to make more history, and how?
I am incredibly proud to be the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council in its 100-year history, and I am even prouder that there are now six women of color on the 13-member council. If elected, I would be the first woman of color to represent the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Congress and I hope that it would inspire younger people, especially girls of color, to run for office and pursue public service.
The lens that I bring is certainly informed by my own life experiences and hardships, but more than anything, it’s a lens informed by the people I listen to in the community every day. That is the activist leadership that these times require and that this district deserves.
There’s a lot of attention on women, especially women of color, challenging white male incumbents. Do you see a comparison between your race and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? And whether or not, do you think this action, this kind of change, is important?
When I began this campaign, I was expecting it to be lonely and uphill, so I am truly humbled that individuals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Attorney General Maura Healey, along with activists and labor unions are supporting our campaign.
Alex and I have both prioritized the issues of income inequality and economic disparities — and we have both challenged conventional wisdom about who has a right to run. I was proud to support her campaign and the causes that she is championing.
But I will not inherit a victory because of the successes of her or anyone else — I have to earn it and that is why we are working as hard as we can in these final days to meet voters where they are and bring them into our movement.
Electing women of color is important, not so that we can show our progressive credentials, but because representation and lived experience matter. They inform the issues that are spotlighted and lead to more innovative and enduring solutions.