Ayanna Pressley and democracy shouldn’t have to wait
Today we turn to pots, kettles, and a black candidate.
Some of her fellow Democrats are displeased that Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is running against Mike Capuano for the 7th District congressional seat he has held since 1999. Pressley has said party insiders and political operatives have upbraided her — elected in 2009 as the first woman of color on the council, the body’s top vote-getter several times — for being too ambitious, too impatient, for putting them in a difficult spot.
On Tuesday, former congressman Barney Frank criticized her challenge to the incumbent as “politics at its most egotistical.”
This is rich coming from Frank, whose own ginormous ego is the stuff of legend. Once a brash young man in a hurry himself, he’s now Mr. Wait Your Turn.
“When Mike Capuano retires, it’d be very good for other people to run,” Frank told Bloomberg Radio. But it isn’t appropriate for them to do so now, he offered, since Capuano has “an absolutely perfect record.”
Seriously? OK, before we get to how messed up this is, let me get a couple of things out of the way. I think Capuano is a very good congressman: He’s scrappy, unapologetically progressive, experienced, and accessible.
I don’t yet know whether Pressley would be a better rep than he is. What I do know is that she’s not some traitorous upstart with no right to challenge him.
The Democratic establishment — including some who are quietly and not so quietly unhappy with her now — have been trotting Pressley out for years to help win black votes. She has been a surrogate for Senator Elizabeth Warren (who is so far neutral in this primary), and President Barack Obama, and she worked her heart out last year for Hillary Clinton, appearing in Southern states, at black churches, and in the spin room after debates.
Pressley, who has remarkable presence, has long been viewed as an up and comer nationally. In 2015, when EMILY’s List gave her its rising star award, her inspiring acceptance speech blew the room away.
“The sky’s the limit for Pressley,” then-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz told David Bernstein, who wrote about the D.C. event for WGBH.
Some sky. Some limit. Frank and others apparently believe that as long as good incumbents exist, hopefuls like Pressley should keep their feet firmly on the ground. And that maybe, if she’s a polite and patient little wannabe, Capuano will deign to descend from his lofty post before she’s six feet under.
Scott Ferson has seen this before, from both sides. The political consultant worked for Chet Atkins, who served in Congress until he was unseated in a 1992 primary challenge by Marty Meehan.
Ferson also ran the campaign of Seth Moulton, another upstart who in 2014 became the first Massachusetts Democrat in 22 years to unseat a sitting congressman from his own party, defeating John Tierney. Some in the party took offense at Moulton’s move. (Does anyone miss Tierney now?) Ferson lost clients over what was seen as his disloyalty.
“I thought as Democrats we believed in democracy, but apparently not,” he said.
Those upset with Pressley’s challenge to Capuano argue that there’s no daylight between the candidates on the issues, that Pressley’s run is all about checking boxes.
Can we be blunt? The argument that it’s not yet time for this now majority-minority district to be represented by a woman of color is offensive. And an all-white delegation in a state as progressive as this is an embarrassment.
And, besides, Pressley is offering more here than diversity for diversity’s sake. She is a black woman who knows racism first-hand; raised by a single mother, her father incarcerated, she has lived the hardships Democrats say they care about; a survivor of sexual trauma, she understands what victimized women need to thrive.
The black women Pressley has been dispatched, time and again, to mobilize are now central to Democrats’ electoral fortunes. It would be great if more in Congress were in tune with women like her. It would be even better if more in Congress were women like her.
Is all of that enough to counter Capuano’s heart and experience? We don’t know yet. To my eye, it’s a close call. Either way, it’s a choice Democrats should relish.