WASHINGTON—The November night that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared winners of the presidential election, Representative Ayanna Pressley and her husband, Conan, camped out with their daughter, Cora, in the backyard of their Dorchester home. With a projector, they cast the livestream of the victory speeches onto the side of their shed and watched history unfold.
Four days earlier, Pressley had easily won reelection herself after a whirlwind freshman term. Sworn in to Congress in the midst of a government shutdown in early 2019, she had quickly bonded with three other new congresswomen, dubbing themselves “the Squad” as they shattered glass ceilings and faced racist attacks from President Trump. She had barnstormed the country as a surrogate for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign and gone public with some of her deepest personal struggles: her trauma as a survivor of sexual assault and her battle with a disease that caused the loss of her hair.
But as Harris stepped out to address the nation as the first woman and person of color to be elected vice president, Pressley, 46, was able to let her guard down, if only long enough for a deep breath.
“Watching my daughter and seeing that moment when vice president-elect Harris entered the stage in that white suit to Mary J. Blige was when I really gave myself permission to appreciate the gravity of the moment,” Pressley said.
The night could prove pivotal for Pressley, the first Black woman ever in the Massachusetts congressional delegation and its only person of color.
“People are hungry for truth tellers and justice seekers and that is who Ayanna is,” Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia said. “She brings that sense of urgency and that fire, and she is unapologetic about it. That is what the Democratic Party needs right now.”
On a Zoom call from her Boston home, Pressley said she was looking forward to working with Biden and Harris, not only to undo the harm unleashed on marginalized communities under Trump, but to ensure the federal government pursues an equitable response to the coronavirus pandemic — a cause made all the more urgent amid a national reckoning on race and racism.
“I’ve seen unprecedented hurt in the last four years, but I’ve been inspired by the unprecedented community, the unprecedented organizing, the unprecedented voting,” she said. “And that’s why I’m that much more emboldened going into the second term.”
Pressley will have to walk a fine line. Biden and Harris are likely to call on her to take the pulse of progressives on major policy decisions and to translate them to the public. If she concedes too much ground, she could anger her supporters. But if she pushes back too strongly on legislative compromises Biden and the Democrats might be forced to make, she risks being called an obstructionist.
Biden has pledged to take bold steps through executive action on his first day in office, and Pressley plans to hold his administration to that. She has championed progressives for his Cabinet, been in close contact with transition team members and is rallying community advocates to push Biden to cancel student debt, halt federal executions, declare climate change a national emergency, and protect immigrants who hold temporary protected status or were brought to the country without legal documents as children.
She also is planning to reintroduce legislation that she filed in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that would end qualified immunity, a legal principle that makes it harder to sue police officers over their actions. And with a pro-choice House majority, she is gearing up for a fight to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from paying for abortions, except in certain cases, such as to save a woman’s life.
Pressley is “the heartbeat” of the House’s progressive wing, and one of a larger number of women in the Congressional Black Caucus who are more forcefully making the case for the need to serve the most marginalized Black people, said Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University who studies Black women in politics.
“She might be wielded as a deputy of the administration,” Brown said. “But I am not 100 percent certain she wants to be that close to the administration. She already has such a powerful political brand on her own.”
With a new administration, Pressley’s brand will include new power.
She honed her political acumen as a senior aide for then-Senator John Kerry, a longtime Biden ally who will be his special presidential envoy on climate. Pressley also has close ties to Harris. She and the California senator crafted bipartisan legislation in 2020 to curb the high maternal mortality rate in the US, particularly among Black mothers. The two also teamed up to introduce a proposal to aid beauty salons, bodegas and restaurants hard hit by the pandemic through a $124.5 billion grant program geared at salvaging the nation’s smallest businesses, particularly those owned by people of color.
“She has just taken the Capitol by storm,” Harris told viewers on Instagram Live in May, as she introduced Pressley before delving into that proposal.
That storm wasn’t in everybody’s forecast.
After Pressley upset 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano in a Democratic primary in 2018, political analysts and pundits — mostly white, mostly male — questioned how a freshman legislator would be able to match Capuano’s influence in Congress. But Pressley arrived with such grace and determination, her supporters and congressional allies say, that she fit right in.
“She carved out a niche for herself in the advocacy realm focusing on women and children and confronting the issue of race well before George Floyd,” said Michael Curry, who has long known Pressley and works with her closely as deputy CEO for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.
Pressley arrived in Washington with 13 years experience working for Kerry and nine on the Boston City Council. She moved into the same Capitol Hill office that once belonged to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 who inspired Pressley, Harris, and a generation of Black women to follow in her footsteps.
In 2019 she catapulted to the forefront of national politics when Trump attacked her and the three other members of the Squad — Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — telling them to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.”
Instead of backing down, Pressley led the Squad in fighting back.
“The right-wing media gave her a platform, and she did the most with it,” Brown said. “She was able to speak back to these negative caricatures of her and really own the moment.”
Pressley’s handling of the controversy showed her skill in political strategy.
Asked if she agrees with characterizations that she straddles the line between political insider and outsider, Pressley said her approach is intentional and attributes it to the values instilled by her mother. The late Sandra Pressley worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat in Chicago, as Pressely’s father, Martin Terrell, grappled with drug addiction and served prison time. She was determined to broaden Pressley’s world, teaching her daughter to vote, bringing her along to activist meetings, and assigning her readings from Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman elected to Congress from the South.
“That foundation has shaped everything for me, my worldview — how I govern, why I cooperatively govern,” Pressley said, adding that her mother would often remind her “we need to be in partnership.”
“So, it is not organic, it is on purpose,” she said. “I want to stay in proximity to the people closest to the hurt. I want to stay uncomfortable on purpose, so that I’m never complacent.”
Her success, she and allies say, has centered on mobilizing people, not letting relationships wither and staying true to the popular campaign refrain that helped her get elected: “Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” And no one who knows Pressley well expects to see her pull punches for the incoming administration.
“She is a force to be reckoned with,” said Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester, calling her one of the most effective freshman legislators he’s ever worked with. “With Ayanna, it is about doing the right thing. She is not giving anybody a free pass just because they are a Democrat.”
Pressley hasn’t hesitated to break from House Democratic leaders on legislation that she and other liberal representatives believe too often sacrifices progress in the name of compromise. She and the Squad have sometimes rocked the political establishment, as they did in 2019 when they became the sole House Democrats to vote against a $4.5 billion border aid bill. The legislation was meant to improve squalid conditions at detention centers and help migrant children but also provided what the congresswomen said was unchecked funding for security operations at the southern border.
“All of these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the time, dismissing their rebellion. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, that’s how many votes they got.”
Yet, four members could become more influential — and spur more heated confrontations — in a chamber where the Democrats will have a razor-thin margin after an election that saw Republicans surprisingly pick up moderate and progressive seats.
Some centrists blamed the losses on rhetoric from the left supporting democratic socialism and defunding the police.
But Pressley has defended the Black Lives Matter movement as the modern-day civil rights struggle. In a December podcast interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, she urged listeners not to let a debate over language distract from the work that needs to be done to dismantle government structures that for generations have caused Black men to be brutalized, surveilled, and treated like criminals.
“Unity is not the goal,” she said. “Justice is.”
Pressley told the Globe that the arguments about congressional Democrats’ performance in the election miss the most important story: The most marginalized people — Black, brown, Asian, indigenous, disabled and young — came together to defeat Trump in the cities and states he needed most to win.
There is a long through line on the issues Pressley has worked on stretching back to her 2009 election as the first Black woman and woman of color on the Boston City Council. Among the 55 bills she introduced or co-led during her first term in Congress, were measures to overhaul unfair credit practices, rethink public transit, and unwind punitive criminal laws that have disproportionately impacted Black people and Latinos. A dozen passed the House.
One proposal she still plans to pursue seeks to end the death penalty, another to create new federal grants for states that commit to eliminating discriminatory school discipline policies that push Black girls out of schools. A measure with Warren — which was folded into an early COVID-19 relief package — pushed the federal government to collect racial and other demographic data on the pandemic’s impact, providing a glimpse into the high death rates of Black and brown men.
Pressley also was a fierce advocate for migrant families under Trump’s hardline immigration policies, pressuring federal officials to reverse the decision to end “deferred action,” a policy allowing some immigrants to remain in the country legally while receiving medical care for complex conditions. She testified before a House committee on the sordid and overcrowded conditions at a Texas border facility, where she said migrant mothers and grandmothers collapsed on her lap and openly wept. Some still did not know the whereabouts of their children after immigration officials had separated families.
“They were speaking in Spanish,” Pressley recalled in the Globe interview, which she does not speak. “But I knew immediately what they were saying. It was despair and they were in search of hope.”
The clashes haven’t come without stress. Her family has received death threats. She no longer has her Senegalese twists, once her signature hairstyle, and an inspiration for Black girls and women she met on the campaign trail who had been discriminated against for their natural hair. She went public last year about her hair loss from alopecia, noting the last clump fell out the night before the House voted to impeach Trump.
Pressley thought about all these things that November night in her backyard as Harris made history in November. Her stepdaughter, Cora, 12, was incredulous that Harris was only the first Black woman to ever reach that national political height.
Pressley has always maintained that diverse representation is not simply about producing “a picture that is more reflective of society.”
It’s about impact, she said.
“The fact that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris say that they want to ‘build back better’ is music to my ears,” she said. “I think this reckoning does afford us an opportunity, and even a responsibility, for reconstruction. A third reconstruction.”