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Michael Capuano follows ‘all politics is local’ mantra while still attacking Trump

Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, spoke to a volunteer in Brighton on Tuesday.
Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, spoke to a volunteer in Brighton on Tuesday.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

For two decades, US Representative Michael Capuano has faithfully followed the dictum that “all politics is local,” famously coined by the legendary House speaker who once held his seat, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.

A proud inside player, Capuano has brought home federal money for public housing projects, subway stations, and community health centers, all while voting in tune with the liberal leanings of his Boston-based district.

RELATED: Opponent Ayanna Pressley wants to be known for advocacy for women and girls

But as he faces the toughest reelection fight of his career against City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, the question is whether that record, a traditional recipe for success for Massachusetts politicians, is enough to satisfy the restive mood of his party.

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At a political moment when Democratic primary voters are hungering for more outspoken voices — particularly women and people of color — to help lead the resistance to President Trump, Capuano, a 66-year-old former alderman and mayor of Somerville, is trying to elevate his profile to fit the tenor of the times.

In his ads, he declares, “I’m fighting Donald Trump every day,” and has made efforts to refashion his image from that of a workmanlike legislator to a more visible and vocal warrior against the administration.

In recent weeks, he made a high-profile visit to the Texas border to tour immigrant detention centers and attended an anti-Trump rally outside the White House, where he ticked off a list of the president’s alleged transgressions.

“Collusion! Election fraud! Election rigging! Voting rights! Civil rights! Black Lives Matter! Me Too! And that’s just the beginning!” Capuano declared. “That’s before he took office!”

The rousing rally was of the kind that Pressley, known for her fiery rhetoric, has excelled at. It was also the type of protest that has helped Capuano’s newer and more headline-grabbing colleagues in the Massachusetts delegation — such as Representatives Joseph P. Kennedy III, Katherine Clark, and Seth Moulton — gain national followings.

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Capuano, however, has not generally been known for this splashy style of leadership, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs.

“Voters are thinking nationally right now, they’re thinking who’s going to be on the team, meaning who’s going to be in Washington taking on the president, taking on congressional Republicans,” Zelizer said. “That’s where he’s running into some trouble.”

That’s not to say the pugnacious Somerville congressman has never raised his voice.

A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he has made some YouTube-worthy clips during committee hearings, expressing righteous indignation at Wall Street bankers, airline executives, and financial regulators who testify before Congress.

“We’ve had moments where we basically have to shout out, ‘Yes!,’ ‘Amen!,’ or, ‘Thank you!’ ” said Representative Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, on which Capuano serves. “He gets that kind of response.”

Capuano has also endeared himself to liberals by supporting a government-funded “Medicare for all” health care plan for more than a decade, well before Bernie Sanders made it a national talking point.

A member of the Transportation Committee, Capuano also helped kill GOP efforts to privatize highways and bridges and effectively lobbied the Obama administration for more money for Boston-area transit projects, said Representative Peter DeFazio, the panel’s top Democrat.

“He’s passionate about stuff, and he pushes hard, but it ultimately gets him respect,” DeFazio said.

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Capuano said the proudest vote of his career was in 2001, when he opposed the Patriot Act.
Capuano said the proudest vote of his career was in 2001, when he opposed the Patriot Act.Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images/File 2011

Capuano’s biggest legislative achievement was thrust upon him in 2007, when then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi chose him to chair a panel that explored whether Congress needed stronger ethics oversight in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The appointment surprised some on Capitol Hill who knew Capuano as a mover and shaker in the Washington money game who, over the course of his 10-term career, has collected $4.3 million, or about a third of his campaign donations, from political action committees.

“Mike was not the usual ardent reformer,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who advised Capuano during the panel’s deliberations. “He was, having been a mayor, dealing with nuts-and-bolts politics. This was not in his natural wheelhouse, and he was skeptical of the public interest reform types who he thought had no real grasp of practical politics.”

Yet Capuano worked well on ethics reform because he was able to act as an honest broker between lawmakers who hated the idea of independent oversight and reform advocates who wanted the toughest oversight possible, said Craig Holman of the group Public Citizen, which advocates for tougher ethics laws.

“He’ll tell me what he can get, and what he can’t get,” Holman said. “It’s kind of refreshing working with him.”

Ultimately, Capuano proposed the creation of a new agency, the Congressional Office of Ethics, the first independent body charged with investigating complaints against members. Although the office was not granted the subpoena power that advocates wanted, it was required to make its reports public to ensure they would not be buried. Capuano helped push the resolution that established the office through the House, overcoming stiff Republican opposition.

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“I came away deeply impressed,” Ornstein said. “In some ways, this was near impossible.”

Capuano said the proudest vote of his career was in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he was one of just 66 House members who voted against the Patriot Act, which expanded the government’s power to surveil and investigate alleged terrorists. Capuano argued the law would trample on civil liberties.

That “no” vote was one of several times Capuano has defied his party and the prevailing political winds.

In 2002, he voted against the Iraq War. Nine years later, he and 10 colleagues sued the Obama administration for launching an offensive to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy without congressional approval. A judge dismissed the suit.

In 2001, Capuano challenged his party again when he was one of 41 House members who voted against the No Child Left Behind Act. Capuano argued that the law did not provide enough funding.

Despite those votes, Capuano is considered more of a loyal foot soldier than renegade.

As he frequently mentions on the campaign trail, he has made perhaps the biggest impact on the district by securing funding for the Ruggles MBTA station, the Green Line extension, the Fairmount Commuter Rail Line, and the Whittier Street public housing project.

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At a recent debate, he questioned whether Pressley would be able to bring home the bacon, as well. “Do you just vote for a transportation bill and sit back?” he said. “Or do you jump in and try to take money back to this district and try to improve the lives of people you represent?”

The congressman’s focus on his district was shaped, he said, by his tenure in local office, when responding to constituent complaints was among the most important duties he could fulfill. Even as a congressman, he said, he remains fiercely proud of his attention to constituent services.

“If you don’t know anybody who is out of work, who needs housing, if you’ve never taken a call at 2 o’clock in the morning from a neighbor who is running out of heating fuel in the middle of February, then you don’t know what you do in a tough situation,” Capuano said. “To me, that’s the measure of whether you should be in public office.”

Now seeking an 11th term, he vows to stay focused on his district while battling Trump. He points out that he refused to attend the president’s inauguration, and voted twice to begin impeachment proceedings, despite declaring last year that he would hold off on impeachment until Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller had completed his investigation.

Asked during a recent debate why he changed course and backed impeachment proceedings, Capuano did not name a single impeachable offense, but said he had simply had enough.

“Every day I wake up, Donald Trump does something more amazing,” he said. “There was an accumulation of issues, every single day . . . I just got to the point where you have to vote on it.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.