Just two days after her opponent, Michael E. Capuano, basked in the endorsement of civil rights icon John Lewis in Roxbury, Ayanna Pressley ascended to the pulpit of the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill to defend her campaign and assail her critics.
Looking out on her supporters in the curved wooden pews, Pressley delivered an impassioned address in which she cited people suffering in Capuano’s congressional district — the bus rider in Chelsea who can’t get to work on time; the young entrepreneur in Roxbury who needs access to capital; the survivor of sexual assault who can’t get care or justice — and summoned the crowd to respond each time with a resounding call of “change can’t wait.”
“We must acknowledge that issues like systemic racism, economic inequality, and the achievement gap are the result of manmade policies. But if they were created by man, they can be disrupted by this wo-man,” Pressley declared, pointing to herself for emphasis and sparking thunderous applause, cheering, and shouts of “that’s right!”
The speech — part sermon, part call-to-arms — showed why Capuano, despite winning high marks from liberal interest groups, has to work hard to defend his deep-blue seat in Congress for the first time since he won it in 1998. Pressley, widely regarded as a rising star in Democratic politics, seems perfectly positioned to capture the restive energy animating the grass roots of the party in a year that has seen massive activism around the #metoo movement, women’s marches, gun control, and Black Lives Matter — not to mention a hunger for diverse, fresh voices to challenge President Trump.
And yet Pressley, who would be the first woman of color ever to serve in the state’s congressional delegation, has found herself running headlong into some very old-fashioned challenges. Capuano, seizing the power of incumbency, has moved quickly to lock up the support of influential black political leaders such as Lewis and former governor Deval Patrick as well as local powerbrokers, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The matchup has ignited an intense debate about how much a candidate’s race, gender, and age should matter because both Capuano, 66, and Pressley, 44, acknowledge they have similar views. The district — which includes most of Boston, half of Cambridge and Milton, and all of Chelsea, Everett, Randolph, and Somerville — is the only one in the state where a majority of residents are nonwhite.
“The dynamic in this race is interesting,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic political strategist and former deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2012. While Capuano has served his district well and has the establishment behind him, the qualities sought by voters may have shifted, she said.
“He’s facing an electorate that’s uneasy, not about him, but about the state of the country. Do they want someone with a little more fight and a little more passion to go to Washington to wage battle for them? Do they want someone — because of her age, race, or background — that might relate a little more to their personal struggles or the change they’re looking for?” Cutter said. “That’s the big question on the table, and it’s not clear right now whether it’s enough to unseat an incumbent in a primary this cycle.”
Sitting recently with his wife, Barbara, at Kelly’s Diner in Somerville, Capuano defended his record of fighting for housing, transportation, and women’s rights while sharply criticizing Pressley’s assertion that her personal and professional background better matches the makeup of the district and will allow her to bring a new “lens” to Washington.
“I’ve always been put off by identity politics on every level,” he said, as he picked at a heaping plate of eggs, toast, bacon, and hash browns. “It’s not new. It’s not going away. But I’ve always been put off by it, and I continue to be put off by it.”
A candidate’s race might be a consideration for some voters, he said, but “more people are interested in what can you do for me, and what have you done for me, than what I would consider to be second- or third-level issues.
“I talk about what I’ve done, I talk about the issues I’m focused on, and what I’m going to do,” he said, mentioning his support for community health centers, the Fairmount commuter rail line through Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park, and the Green Line extension in Somerville. “That, to me, is what people want to hear.”
He said he is especially proud of the attention he has paid to constituents in Randolph, which is about 40 percent black. “I’ve always worked hard for the very people who feel the most like they have the short end of the stick,” he said. “That’s who I am.”
Capuano said that if he wins the September primary and Democrats take back the House in November, he will serve as chairman of a subcommittee that oversees housing or transportation — key issues in a district with some of the nation’s highest housing costs and an aging, temperamental transit system.
“If we decide to send junior people, good luck,” Capuano said. “If we send somebody who has a long record of being able to do it, and having done it, and knowing how to get it done, then with seniority comes a gavel. That stuff should matter to people.”
Pressley argued that her life experiences — growing up with a father who battled drug addiction and was often in prison, surviving sexual assault, breaking barriers as the first black woman on the Boston City Council — are vital qualifications because “the biggest challenges of the district are not abstract for me. They are lived.”
Yet she strongly rejected Capuano’s suggestion that she is campaigning on “identity politics.”
“Let me be abundantly clear: I am black and I am a woman and I embrace both of those facts,” she said at the African Meeting House, a historic black church building where Frederick Douglass once spoke. “But to suggest that the only difference is my race and my gender is wrong and toxic, and the voters of the Seventh Congressional District aren’t buying it.”
Pressley said she is proud of her record — pushing for more liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods, advocating for victims of gun violence — and has begun formulating policy ideas she would bring to Congress, such as an “asset-management conference” she would convene for the owners of bodegas, beauty salons, and home day cares.
Ultimately, she said, the contest is about what kind of representative voters want. She acknowledged Capuano has a solid progressive “score card,” but promised “activist leadership” that “elevates all the voices in our district.”
“How many of you have ever been invited to testify before Congress?” she asked those in the pews. No hands went up. “I’m going to change that.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.