Editor’s note: Representative Michael Capuano has conceded to Ayanna Pressley in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary. Click here for more.
At the beginning of every Boston City Council meeting, Ayanna Pressley places in front of her a framed photograph of her mother, Sandra, holding her at 3 months old at a tenants’ rights rally in Chicago in 1974.
The black-and-white photo is a reminder of how Pressley’s personal story, as the daughter of a single mother and a father who was often incarcerated, informs many of her actions on the council, where she has used her modest perch to highlight the needs of women and girls.
As the first African-American woman on the council, she formed a new committee devoted to issues facing women and families, held hearings that explored how school disciplinary policies disproportionately target girls of color, and pushed for comprehensive sex education in Boston Public Schools.
Her agenda, and the hearings she held, represented a dramatic shift on the 13-member council, a traditionally parochial body that had only one other female member when she was first elected in 2009 and none other the following session.
“She was a dynamic leader, and she worked on issues that no one else was working on, and was really giving voice to issues like gender equality and sexual violence long before the #metoo movement started,” said former city councilor John R. Connolly.
Now, as Pressley ventures into national and international affairs as part of her run for Congress against Representative Michael E. Capuano, she has found herself on less familiar terrain, and is running into criticism that she can sometimes be vague or tend toward political expediency.
Pressley recently embraced a government-funded “Medicare for all” health care plan popularized by Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential run, even though she bashed Sanders’ platform when she was campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.
“Plans without price tags are simply pandering,” Pressley said then.
Asked during a recent debate to explain her change of heart, Pressley did not offer a direct answer. “We’re in a watershed moment,” she said. “And we have to be bold.”
Tackling foreign policy, she recently declined to answer yes or no when asked by Massachusetts Peace Action, an antiwar group, if she would support ending US military involvement in Afghanistan and Syria.
In a questionnaire submitted to the group, she wrote that while she supports a quick end to the conflicts and greater stability in the Middle East, “it would be irresponsible to foreclose any potential avenues to achieving that goal.”
She also declined to answer yes or no when asked by the group if she would support legislation outlawing a controversial movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
“My priority will remain supporting those courageous individuals and organizations, among both Israelis and Palestinians, committed to bringing peaceful coexistence to the region,” she wrote.
Capuano was more decisive, saying he opposes US military involvement in Afghanistan and Syria and would oppose, on “First Amendment grounds,” legislation cracking down on the pro-Palestinian movement.
“I do not support [that movement] but I believe others should be free to advocate it,” he wrote.
Massachusetts Peace Action criticized Pressley’s responses, saying her “vague boilerplate positions on war and peace issues are not encouraging” and endorsed Capuano.
Pressley, 44, has made a more definitive mark on the local level, where she prides herself on working closely with advocates and community leaders.
After she was first elected to the council, she opted not to seek a seat on traditionally influential committees that oversee the budget, education, and public safety and instead formed her own panel, the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities.
She also broke council tradition by holding the first-ever listening-only session for the families of murder victims and survivors of gun violence. More than 200 people attended, many of them grieving mothers.
Pressley pushed successfully for a new policy to help pregnant teens and young mothers graduate from high school, and helped revise another policy to ensure medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education would be a basic part of a Boston Public Schools education.
A survivor of childhood sexual assault and campus sexual assault at Boston University, she has also highlighted those issues, holding a “Raise Your Voice Day of Empowerment” that encouraged more than 100 women and girls to talk openly about sexual violence with the police and community organizations.
Larry Mayes, Boston’s former human services chief, recalled that when he and a Boston police superintendent launched a program to help the families of young shooting suspects so their younger brothers would not follow them into crime, Pressley urged the city to pay attention as well to the mothers, sisters, and girlfriends of the perpetrators. Pressley pointed out that the woman and girls in those families are often victims of intimate partner violence, and dealing with trauma, Mayes said.
“Not many of us even 10 years ago were comfortable talking about violence that touched on gender, and she could articulate those issues in a way that was pretty powerful,” Mayes said.
Mayes said he and other Cabinet chiefs also knew that when they testified before Pressley, they would have to explain what their agencies were doing to help women and girls.
“If not, she was definitely going to call us on it,” he said.
Pressley’s biggest legislative achievement was one not typically associated with gender equality or social justice: more liquor licenses for restaurants.
But Pressley believed that increasing the number of liquor licenses in Boston could help spread the lucrative restaurant boom from wealthy, mostly white neighborhoods like South Boston into poorer, predominantly nonwhite corners of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
“I love the upward mobility” in the restaurant industry, Pressley said, calling restaurants a traditional path to small business ownership for women, immigrants, and former convicts.
Pressley became interested in the issue almost by chance while shopping at the farmers’ market near her home in the Ashmont section of Dorchester about six years ago.
There, Pressley ran into Karen Henry-Garrett, owner of the now-defunct Dot 2 Dot Cafe, who gave the councilor an earful about the struggles of small restaurateurs.
“We need help,” Henry-Garrett recalled telling Pressley. “You guys are not helping us.”
Pressley agreed to tackle the state’s entrenched, heavily regulated liquor-licensing system.
In 2014, after a two-year drive, she succeeded in passing a council measure to lift the cap on liquor licenses in Boston, and shift control of the licenses from the state to the city for the first time since 1906.
The measure was subsequently rewritten by the state Legislature, where it needed final approval. The law granted Boston 75 new licenses, and empowered the mayor to appoint a three-person board to distribute the licenses, replacing the old panel named by the governor.
Although Dot 2 Dot Cafe closed last year despite winning a beer-and-wine license, Henry-Garrett praised Pressley for helping to ease the long-time scarcity of available licenses.
“Once she was on board and took that as her cause, she certainly pushed hard,” Henry-Garrett said. “It was a political hot potato at the time.”
Pressley acknowledges the change has not succeeded as much as she had hoped. Several Dudley Square restaurants that won beer-and-wine licenses have closed, for example, and Mattapan still does not have even one establishment that serves alcohol.
She has proposed a new measure that would designate 15 additional licenses per neighborhood to prevent restaurant owners in thriving neighborhoods from competing for licenses with entrepreneurs in struggling neighborhoods.
“We’re encouraged,” Pressley said, “but not satisfied.”
She said her record, focused on disenfranchised communities, explains why she is running for Congress and why she talks so much on the campaign trail about the yawning racial and economic disparities in the Seventh Congressional District.
“There’s many law changes, policy changes I can point to,” she said. “But a lot of my work has also been to name the issue that no one else named — to spotlight it, to advocate for it. That’s where all advocacy begins. I’ve asked different questions. I’ve raised different issues.”