Ayanna Pressley: ‘The American people are looking for us to act and to be bold’
The congresswoman-elect talks about following in her idol’s footsteps, the Post-it that inspired her, and getting gun legislation done.
Edited and condensed excerpts from the conversation between Globe Magazine staff writer Neil Swidey and congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley.
You mentioned a sermon you heard where the preacher talked about understanding the evolution of a moment to a movement to momentum. Where would you put your election on that continuum?
It would be tempting to say that I’m ushering in a new moment, hopefully which shifts the paradigm and creates a movement. I’m tempted to say that. But I really do believe that I am in the momentum of groundwork that has been laid decades before me. In many ways I’m the beneficiary of that.
What do you think about when it comes to the late congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as a first?
It’s tempting to make Shirley Chisholm’s entire legacy about her being a “first.” But if you do that, you miss the true impact of how she led. In the rewriting of history, we tend to flatten people and make them one-dimensional, and speak about their contribution in a way that is static and not fully encompassing or dynamic.
Myself and other freshman colleagues who are firsts, the first either because of race, culture and ethnicity, or gender or religion or sexual orientation, this is something we’ve all spoken about: As humbled as we are to be celebrated and acknowledged as a first, the impression that we want to leave is one that is about the issues we championed and the legislation we’ve moved. Here we find ourselves in unprecedented times. I think unprecedented times demand unprecedented leadership, and hopefully unprecedented legislation. That’s what we all plan to do.
We had our lottery for our offices on the Hill. I never put all my eggs in one basket, but Shirley Chisholm’s former office was the only office that I wanted. I’m ashamed to admit that I squatted in the office and maybe made up things to discourage my colleagues from picking it. I said, “Oh the handle on the toilet sticks,” “There’s mice in here,” “Oh, there’s a foul smell!” I was just so emotional, thinking, Did she stand at this window? Did she look out there contemplating the work? What did she do in this space on her toughest days? What was her joy? What was her pain? Did she pace the floor?
Who got the office?
Katie Hill [of California], who I hold in high regard and have tremendous respect for. I might try to just work out a weekly drop-by where I can just sort of rub the door or rub that mahogany desk for good luck. [Note: Pressley announced on Twitter on December 17 that she ended up getting Chisholm’s old office after all. She tweeted: “How’s that for divine intervention, AND the selflessness of my colleague @KatieHill4CA who drew a better lottery# but still wanted me to have it.”]
Wow! TY Mommy for the extra bday luck! We just learned my Congressional Office designation will be #ShirleyChisholm 's former office. How's that for divine intervention, AND the selflessness of my colleague @KatieHill4CA who drew a better lottery# but still wanted me to have it.— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) December 17, 2018
What stays with you from your historic win?
After the primary, I put on a Post-it on my bathroom mirror and also on the back of the door of the home that I share with my husband and our daughter, with the number 60,046 on it — the total number of people who voted for me in the primary. My responsibility and obligation is in no way just to those people who voted for me. I hope that by the time all is said and done, even the people who didn’t vote for me will be proud to call me their representative. But those who did stepped out on faith. So I always start there. I remember this number and I remember that connected to that number are people and their stories and their struggles. And it’s up to me to bring those people with me in every room I enter, and every table I sit at, and every decision that I’m making.
What’s your strategy for tackling political polarization?
What is polarizing us is hate. I do believe the flames of that hate have been fanned by the current occupant in the White House. That hate isn’t new, but it has been put on steroids. Ultimately, though, I know that every person cares about whether they have access to child care that is quality and that is affordable, and that is accessible to every region, every worker. That their child goes to a school that is excellent and highly performing. That they live in a community that is healthy and safe. That their children can afford one day to buy a home in the neighborhood that they were raised in. That their grandparents can age in [their] community. That health care is affordable and quality. That jobs pay you a living wage and with dignity. That we have transit that is rapid and reliable and accessible. So we might ultimately disagree about the means to that end, but we all want the same end.
What do you think made your campaign different?
I refuse to be any less aspirational or idealistic or hopeful. In fact, that’s why we won.
So many people were running campaigns throughout the country singularly about resisting Trump. That’s not what we ran our campaign on. I think our victory was less a campaign against hate and more a mandate for hope. That’s why I plan to do everything I can to keep that hope.
You’ve talked a lot about being an inclusive leader and consensus builder. What’s your plan for getting that done in Washington?
The gauge for me about whether or not I’ve done it effectively is when I look around the table, have I invited people to have a seat at the table who are personally impacted by an issue? They’re bringing lived experience, expertise, to the table, along with folks that might consider themselves to be scholars. The policies are always better informed when you are in proximity to the hurt. Not only do you understand the complexities better of that hurt, but it’s where the solutions live.
Can you take us through your discussions with [Nancy] Pelosi?
I spoke about gun violence in every room that I was in during [Congress’] freshman orientation. [Pelosi] was not singled out. As we began to have conversations about what our first bill would look like, [then-minority] leader Pelosi spoke very passionately about the need to tackle campaign-finance reform and ethics reform, and later voting rights was folded in. I certainly saw the merit of those issues. It is about restoring people’s faith in our democracy, especially with the backdrop of Georgia and Florida. However, I feel very strongly that coming in to a Democratic majority, we should be bold and not timid. We had been in a Democratic majority previously, during [the 2010 Affordable Care Act negotiations], [and] people pushing for a gun bill were told, “There’s no appetite for it. We’re busy with the ACA.” I think it’s incumbent on us to create the appetite. I understand people want to be tactical about what has the likelihood of getting passed, but the American people are looking for us to act and to be bold.
Although the leader had been speaking about a gun bill, I hope my conversations underscored the need to be expedient in the putting forward of a bill. And not just to identify the lowest common denominator to get anything passed, but to pass something that is bold. And she agreed. We both expressed how important it is that we move quickly. Every life is of value. There is no hierarchy of hurt here. [There’s] a lot of emphasis on mass shootings. But we are being robbed of lives every day. It is a public health crisis.
We need to prioritize keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, of those who have battled mental illness. The first thing we should prioritize is background checks. It doesn’t end there. Obviously, I’d like to see an assault rifles ban. Many feel that might be too bold for right now. I’ve been appointed to a gun task force. My conversation with leader Pelosi wasn’t a one-off, and she wasn’t singled out, and this was an issue I spoke about in every room I was in.
You just made sure you spoke about it when the room you were in also had her.
Right, and I wanted to make it clear that I needed these assurances to cast my vote for her.
What do you think your late mother would make of your success?
I’m sure there are many, many people we surprised on September 4 [after the Democratic primary]. I can assure you the one person in the universe who was not the least bit surprised was my mother. She believed so fiercely in my purpose to contribute to lawmaking and government. I’m sure she saw this for me decades before I did.
When I take my oath of office on January 3, I will be taking that oath on a Bible gifted to me by my grandfather — her father — who passed away at the age of 93 just a few days after that September 4 primary. He was a pastor of a storefront church on the South Side of Chicago for decades. When I take my oath of office, I will be thinking of both of them.