Metro

Adrian Walker

Can Ayanna Pressley beat Mike Capuano?

Ayanna Pressley.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Ayanna Pressley.

The race in the Seventh Congressional District has been years in the making, even though many observers seemed caught by surprise.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley has decided to take on longtime incumbent Michael Capuano of Somerville in a race virtually guaranteed to split the Democratic base along generational, gender, and racial fault lines. The unusual nature of her challenge is why it is so necessary.

“To me this is ultimately about affirming and upholding democracy, and one of the fundamental tenets of democracy is choice,” Pressley said in a recent interview. “And that’s what I’m offering the voters of the Seventh District: a choice.”

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Choices are unusual in Massachusetts, where long-term incumbents have effectively held tenure. That’s especially true of a mainstream liberal Democrat like Capuano. He may have ruffled a few feathers along the way, but he’s never done anything to arouse meaningful opposition.

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Yet, this challenge didn’t come out of nowhere. Pressley’s interest in the seat has never been a secret. A former aide to US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy 2d (the father of the current Congressman Kennedy) and US Senator John F. Kerry, she’s long viewed her future on Capitol Hill, someday.

Now she’s ready to find out if someday is 2018.

Pressley begins the campaign as an underdog, but that’s a familiar position. It’s easy to forget that she was the first woman of color ever elected to the Boston City Council, less than a decade ago. She entered that race as an unknown — albeit a politically savvy unknown — and won with surprising ease. She has gone on to finish first in three subsequent Council races.

Hers has always been an unusually personal approach to politics, one that draws heavily on her life story. Pressley grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a single mother and an incarcerated father. She came to Boston to attend Boston University — she dropped out for financial reasons — and threw herself into politics, initially behind the scenes.

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The issues she grew up with have become the signature causes of her career — systemic poverty, providing more economic support for low-income families, advocating for women and girls. For her, the personal and political have been inseparable.

Pressley says an early window into the impact politics could have came when she was an intern under Kennedy.

“I was studying political theory in the abstract, but at the same time I was answering the phone and helping someone to prevent their home from going into foreclosure, or connecting them with a food pantry,” Pressley recalled. “That really made so clear to me the difference government was making in people’s lives every day.”

So far, Pressley’s biggest challenge is making the case for unseating Capuano. By her own admission, they barely differ on the issues.

So why run against him? She speaks, somewhat obliquely, about bringing a different “lens,” and different priorities, to the job. “Anyone who’s long serving, I respect their service. But I don’t think how one votes or their seniority are the only ways in which to define leadership.”

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To some extent, Pressley’s campaign is not just against an incumbent — she’s running against an entrenched party machine. One that has preserved the status quo for generations, while rarely making room for new voices. Though she won’t say so, it’s not an accident that the congressional delegation is a lot more white and male than the people who elect them. She’s gambling voters are ready to embrace disruption.

Pressley isn’t going to beat Capuano on policy or organization. Her hope is that enough voters in a diverse district that includes about 70 percent of Boston, plus several other communities connect with her personally to carry her to victory.

“What I want is for voters to be partners, to feel a greater stake in government,” she said. “If I can do that, I can win.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: adrian_walker.