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Ayanna Pressley to challenge Michael Capuano in primary for Congress

Ayanna Pressley spoke to a protest crowd in Downtown Crossing last year. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Editor’s note: Representative Michael Capuano has conceded to Ayanna Pressley in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary. Click here for more.

Ayanna Pressley, who became the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council nine years ago, said Tuesday that she is running against US Representative Michael E. Capuano in the Democratic primary, emerging as the veteran congressman’s most serious challenger since he won the seat in 1998.

Pressley’s decision sets up a battle between two outspoken liberals with similar policy positions in the strongly Democratic Seventh Congressional District — a showdown that the 43-year-old Pressley appears keen to fight on generational lines against the 66-year-old Capuano.


“This district and these times demand more than just an ally, they demand an advocate and a champion,” she said in a statement. “Making progress on longstanding challenges requires a different lens and a new approach.”

The district — Somerville, Chelsea, Everett, Randolph, half of Cambridge, one-third of Milton, and the majority of Boston — had a 56 percent minority population when it was drawn by the Legislature for the 2012 election. It is the state’s only congressional district where the majority of residents are minorities, a term that includes people who are black, Asian, and nonwhite Hispanic.

However, the district has never had a person of color represent it. Capuano, a half-Irish and half-Italian Somerville resident who once served as the city’s mayor, is white.

Pressley, a Dorchester resident raised in Chicago, is African-American.

In a short statement posted on his Facebook page Tuesday, Capuano did not directly address the challenge.

“This election is a great opportunity to highlight my aggressive progressive record, opposing Trump and standing up to Republicans in Washington. I will never stop fighting for the interests of my constituents,” he said. “See you on the campaign trail!”


First elected to the council in 2009 in a history-making campaign, Pressley has won four more terms as an at-large member, most recently in November. She has focused on advocating for women and girls.

Before winning elective office, Pressley, who attended Boston University, worked as an aide to high-profile local politicians, including then-senator John Kerry and then-representative Joseph P. Kennedy II. (Capuano succeeded Kennedy in the House of Representatives.)

Pressley — who was raised by a single mother and whose father battled addiction and was in and out of prison — is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and also sexual assault as a college freshman.

“I know, intimately, the impacts of addiction, the challenges of a single female-headed household, and the shame and the isolation of abuse,” she said in a telephone interview. “And so it is no wonder that these life experiences have really shaped not only me, but also my policy agenda, and my values, and my priorities.”

Pressley demurred when asked on what policies she specifically differs with Capuano. And she declined to detail a position on single-payer health care, a key issue for many progressives. But she emphasized she’d bring a different way of looking at things to Washington, D.C.

“If the problems are the same, it’s incumbent upon us to change the approach, and I believe a part of that is also about a different lens, which I bring.”

Among the policies she said she would focus on: income inequality, food insecurity, systemic racism, lifting barriers to women’s access to abortions, and reform of the criminal justice system.


But Pressley being able to talk about her story and those priorities to the more than 700,000 people of the district will be expensive.

And a key test for Pressley, who like many challengers to an incumbent faces an uphill battle, will be fund-raising. On Dec. 31, Capuano had $760,000 in the bank. Federal rules prohibit Pressley from using funds she has raised for her municipal campaign for her congressional bid.

Yet the councilor is close to EMILY’s List, a well-funded national group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, and may be able to tap into the organization’s network for money help. (An e-mail asking whether the group would support Pressley went unreturned.)

As with every Democratic primary race this year, the issue of opposing President Trump is likely to surface.

Pressley, who plans to remain on the council during her congressional run, hinted in her statement at Democratic grass-roots disgust with the New York billionaire, calling the tenor of the national political debate “cruel and dangerous.”

Capuano, too, has spoken out on Trump — and voted last year to move forward with a debate on impeachment of the president.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Boston College Law School, Capuano has blended his brass-knuckle progressivism, Ivy League pedigree, and a focus on nuts-and-bolts issues — federal money for the extension of the Green Line, for fixing the Chelsea Street Bridge, and for dredging Boston Harbor — into a winning electoral formula. He serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Financial Services Committee.


Eschewing the cable television bombast of some of his colleagues, he’s appealed to both the residents of the old ethnic neighborhoods in his district and the new gentrifiers, who have transformed large swaths of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville in recent years.

Speaking to the Globe last year at a Kendall Square coffee shop, Capuano made the case for why voters should give him an 11th term.

“I’m not done yet,” Capuano said at the time. “I still got the fight. I still enjoy it, even though ‘enjoy’ nowadays is probably a funny term to use. I still see progress that we can make. A lot more to do.”

Political science professor Peter N. Ubertaccio said that normally when a primary challenger is successful, it is because the incumbent has fallen out of favor with the district — because of political ideology, or poor constituent services, or the whiff of scandal.

“None of those things apply to Capuano,” he said, so Pressley won’t have the normal tools a challenger might use.

“What she will have,” Ubertaccio said, “is the status quo in American politics has been upended and it may just be an opportunity for her to pioneer a new way to articulate a similar vision.”

The Democratic primary will be held on Sept. 4, and the victor of the Seventh District primary is almost certain to win November’s general election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district over Trump with more than 80 percent of the vote.


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Pressley’s full statement:

“Today, I humbly announce my candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the 7th Congressional District. I made this decision after much prayer, deliberation, and thoughtful conversation with my family, friends, and those I hope to have the honor to represent in Congress. This district and these times demand more than just an ally, they demand an advocate and a champion.

“My life as an advocate for those most in need is inspired by my mother’s example. She believed in the potential inherent in each of us, and that belief is the foundation of my work. That belief is what drove me to successfully tackle some of society’s most complex issues as a Boston City Councilor, working alongside communities in the policymaking process and never losing sight of who government is meant to serve. It is that belief that will drive me throughout this campaign and beyond.

“Our country is facing a critical moment. While the cruel and dangerous tenor of the national political debate is new, the issues we are struggling to address — income inequality, systemic racism, and lack of economic opportunity — have dogged our nation for years. We have not yet delivered on our nation’s foundational promise of equality. Not everyone is granted the opportunity that each of us deserves: to fulfill our God-given potential. Making progress on longstanding challenges requires a different lens and a new approach. I will be a bold voice in Congress, as an advocate for the entire district and as a champion for opportunity. This moment in time demands nothing less.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos