Tip O’Neill, who represented Cambridge, Somerville, and a swath of Boston wards decades ago, eventually rising to become House speaker and a national Democratic icon, famously said that all politics is local.
The woman who just trounced a 10-term incumbent to win O’Neill’s old seat did it at a moment when, it seems, all politics is national.
Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley got elected on a promise to help spearhead the fight against President Trump, and to make the Democratic Party more responsive to a diverse constituency.
As the Tea Party has shown, fledgling House members can do plenty to frustrate a president and change their party’s direction. And Pressley won’t be working alone.
Her stunning upset marks the second time this year that a younger woman of color has ousted a 10-term white male incumbent in a Democratic primary. In June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated New York City’s Joe Crowley, the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat.
Their races are often mentioned in the same breath, but the two women differed in their focus.
Ocasio-Cortez ran as a member of the Democratic Socialist Party and vowed, repeatedly, to force Democrats to move left.
Pressley is progressive, too, but her emphasis was slightly different. She honed in on structural racism and income inequality in her district, which has arguably been shaped by those forces more than any other in New England. Advocating for women was also a key plank of her platform, bolstered by her personal story, as the child of a single mother and the survivor of sexual assault, and her record of fighting to help pregnant teenagers graduate from high school and to ensure comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education would be taught in the Boston Public Schools.
Pressley said in her speech Tuesday night, to cheers, that when she launched her campaign, “I knew I would be demonized as entitled, and what no woman can ever be: ambitious.”
In all this, she’s positioned herself in stark opposition to the president, a wealthy celebrity who has delivered tax cuts for the rich, appealed to white supremacists, and boasted about sexually assaulting women.
In the near term, then, Pressley may be sought out for her unflinching critiques of Trump and asked to help mobilize voters from progressive communities. In her speech Tuesday night, Pressley called the president “a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man.”
But her “change can’t wait” message might be even more potent inside a Democratic Party that’s debating the best way to win back the White House.
She does not have to introduce herself to the party power structure. Locally, she’s passed on party leaders’ suggestions that she run for mayor and for lieutenant governor.
Nationally, she’s been noticed as a figure to watch. She has deep national networks from her ties as a top former John Kerry aide and a surrogate to Hillary Clinton during her presidential run. In 2015, the powerful pro-women, abortion rights group EMILY’s List, a key funder of Democratic aspirants, honored her as the sole winner of a “rising star” award.
Representative Michael Capuano, the man Pressley unseated, did everything Democrats know how to do to win: He raised big money from the swamp. He ran a ton of TV ads. He racked up prominent endorsements.
Yet Pressley clobbered him — in an election held on the day after Labor Day, when many expected only the most regular voters to turn out. She did it, at least in part, by mobilizing urban voters of color, a constituency the Democratic Party pays lip service to but has rarely engaged in a genuine way.
So when former vice president Joe Biden and others argue the party needs to appeal to white, rural, working-class voters in the Midwest, Pressley can tell her party about how it might expand the electorate. She’s shown that, in her district at least, it can be done.