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In a heated debate, Pressley launches an offensive against Capuano

Meredith Nierman/WGBH

Incumbent Michael Capuano, center, and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley met in their final debate in the race for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional District seat. Jim Braude of WGBH moderated.

By Globe Staff 

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley launched a bristling offensive against Representative Michael Capuano on Wednesday, using the final debate of their hard-fought contest to accuse him of being willing to support President Trump’s “hate wall,” of voting to restrict access to abortion, and of expressing skepticism about the push for gun control after the Virginia Tech massacre.

Pressley’s barrage in the opening minutes of a fast-moving televised debate on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” signaled a new and more confrontational turn in what had been a contest notable for the candidates’ reluctance to directly engage each other or criticize each other’s records.

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The contest between the 44-year-old African-American city councilor and the 66-year-old, 10-term incumbent has been watched nationally as a test of Democratic primary voters’ willingness to jettison incumbents in favor of newcomers — particularly women and people of color, who are running on a promise to fight Trump’s agenda.

With the Sept. 4 primary looming and polls showing Capuano ahead, Pressley was the aggressor throughout the 30-minute debate, moderated by host Jim Braude.

While the two candidates sparred mostly over Capuano’s record and public statements, they also disagreed sharply over the protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who launched a national discussion about racial injustice when he began kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games in 2016.

Capuano said he supports Kaepernick’s cause, but disagrees with his tactics.

“I personally think if you’re going to raise an issue like that, you should do it in a way that brings people in,” Capuano said. “I thought that particular action divided America, because he chose to do it on the national anthem. I understand what he’s doing, I actually agree with the concept of what he’s doing, I just thought it could have been done in a way that brings more people into the discussion, rather than actually anger an awful lot of America.”

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Pressley strongly disagreed, saying she “stands in solidarity” with Kaepernick and other NFL players who have knelt during the anthem.

“It’s necessary that we are disruptive right now and making people uncomfortable,” she said. “The issue of police brutality and disproportionate brutality and murder of black men strikes at the soul and consciousness of this country.”

Turning to the issue of abortion, Pressley revived an attack that was leveled against Capuano by Attorney General Martha Coakley during their 2009 Senate race. Pressley pointed to Capuano’s vote for the Affordable Care Act, which included an amendment restricting federal funding for abortion. She said the amendment made it harder for poor women to gain access to reproductive care.

Capuano pointed out that he has earned perfect ratings from the abortion rights groups Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. And he said he was not alone in supporting some unpalatable measures in order to pass the Affordable Care Act. He said that then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi and other female lawmakers who support abortion rights had voted for the landmark legislation, even though it included the amendment.

“We did have to vote on certain things we didn’t like in that bill, of course, because it was a big, comprehensive bill,” he said. “We had to stay unified or it wouldn’t have happened.”

Pressley also accused Capuano of expressing a willingness to fund Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexico border as part of a broader agreement for comprehensive immigration reform.

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“You offered that you would be willing to invest money in a Trump hate wall,” Pressley said.

Pressley was seizing on remarks Capuano had made to Boston business leaders earlier this year, when he called the wall “a stupid idea” and “a complete and total waste of money” but said “I’d give him something to play and say, ‘Oh look my wall,’ as long as he gave us real immigration reform,” according to the State House News Service.

Pressley said she would not have supported any funding for a wall, even if it meant new pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I will sit at the table and compromise with anyone in the name of progress but there are things I’m not willing to compromise and negotiate on, and that is the rights of women, of immigrants, of workers, and of the LGBTQIA community.”

Capuano pointed out that Senate liberals, including Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, and Bernie Sanders, voted last year for comprehensive immigration legislation that included some funding for the wall. He said he would have done the same if the bill had reached the House. “It would have saved a lot of hassle for people on temporary protected status, the Dreamers, and the mothers and children being separated at the border,” Capuano said.

In another swipe, Pressley pounced on Capuano for voting earlier this year for a bill that would make it a federal crime to assault a police officer. Pressley called it the “Blue Lives Matter Bill.”

“We are holding up the dignity and the life of police officers and meanwhile we are not getting justice for the black men that are being murdered in this country every day,” she said.

Capuano said he stands by his support for the bill: “I do not think you should intentionally allow or ignore when you intentionally target a police officer — that’s all that bill said.” He called it “a statement bill” that did not substantively change federal law.

Pressley also pounced on Capuano for doubting the prospects for gun-control legislation after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. She accused him of saying, “We know we’re going to lose,” even though Democrats were in the majority.

She was referring to these comments Capuano made in the Globe in 2007: “It’s a political judgment, but we know we’re going to lose — it’s just not worth it. Some members would be hurt — not only hurt, but they would lose [reelection].” Capuano said he couldn’t recall making the comment.

Capuano took a shot at Pressley for comments she made about Sanders when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton, whom both Pressley and Capuano supported. Braude pointed out that Pressley now supports some Sanders proposals, such as Medicare for all, but attacked his platform back then, saying, “Plans without price tags are simply pandering,” according to Commonwealth Magazine.

Capuano said her attack on Sanders exacerbated divisions within the Democratic Party.

“We have to stop that if we have any hope and desire to defeat Donald Trump — calling each other names,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the way to defeat Donald Trump and advance the agenda.”


Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.