WASHINGTON — As House Democrats gathered last Wednesday morning to pick their leaders for the next Congress, at least one incoming freshman was already lost, confounded by the warren of tunnels and sparingly marked doors that led to the basement auditorium where the vote was set to take place.
It wasn’t Ayanna Pressley. The congresswoman-elect strode purposefully into the meeting, joined by a single aide, having already leveraged her vote in the looming speaker’s race to push for a gun bill and to secure herself a spot on a House task force aimed at addressing gun violence.
Pressley has shown an unusual savvy and cut a remarkably high profile for a lawmaker who has yet to be sworn in. While many freshmen were quite literally getting their bearings, she finagled the gun-bill promise from Nancy Pelosi in the Capitol and flew down to Mississippi as one of the few out-of-state Democrats asked to stump for Senate candidate Mike Espy. And she has built alliances with other high-profile members of the younger, historically diverse House freshman class, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, who call themselves a #squad on Instagram.
“She comes in officially as a freshman and she’s anything but,” said Representative Joe Kennedy III.
Drawing on more than two decades of political experience as a Capitol Hill aide and a Boston city councilor, Pressley is fashioning herself as an ambitious new member of a chamber where change usually comes slowly. And she is emerging as an early player in the bigger group of hungry new members who may eventually clash with the seniority-driven leadership structure of the House.
“I think the job description for a member of Congress has changed and that’s why I ran,” Pressley said in an interview. “We can be even more innovative now, even more bold, even more aspirational.”
Pressley broke into Congress as an outsider, toppling a powerful Democratic incumbent and becoming the first black woman to serve Massachusetts in Washington — and the first black person from the state, period, to serve in the House. She quickly charmed members of the delegation who endorsed her opponent, Michael Capuano, during her race.
Representative Katherine Clark calls her a “superstar” while Jim McGovern, the likely incoming Rules Committee chair, says she’s a “leader” who’s going to “shake things up.”
Now that she’s here, she appears to have an instinct for the inside track. Take how she handled the first political hurdle for freshmen: the Democratic leadership race.
When Pressley arrived in Washington for freshman orientation, her phone was ringing off the hook with calls from Pelosi’s allies and candidates for other leadership roles, wanting her to commit her vote.
“You find yourself in a position where you’ve just landed and you’re immediately being lobbied for support and you’ve not even had the opportunity to meet with people,” Pressley said. “I wanted to sit down with her.”
Pressley had heard the calls by Pelosi for the newly empowered Democrats to open the next Congress with a bill on campaign finance and ethics reform, and she was not convinced. Her district, which stretches through such Boston neighborhoods as Mattapan where gun violence is a familiar worry, had recently seen eight gun deaths over 11 days.
“It was on my to-do list with anyone who would listen that I was going to push for a gun bill,” Pressley said.
During a meeting in Pelosi’s office and in phone calls afterward, the women hashed out an agreement. Pelosi committed to Pressley that she would make a bill addressing gun violence a priority in Congress and she assigned Pressley to the Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force to help develop ideas for the legislation. It was enough to secure Pressley’s vote.
Both are relatively small concessions. Pelosi had already mentioned gun reform in a long Democratic wish list for the new session, and task forces are not known as hotbeds of power and deal-making. But Pressley showed a level of sophistication in extracting something for her vote that bodes well for her future in the often transactional House.
“It was an opportunity for her to get a commitment out of a person that I expect to be our next speaker,” Kennedy said. “I think it was a smart and savvy way to do it.”
Like Pressley, many of the 40 new House Democrats campaigned on promises of dramatic change and bold leadership. But the House of Representatives can be an inhospitable place for new members with big dreams. Power is concentrated in a few top leadership spots and committee chairmanships, which can take decades to ascend to. The chosen few then corral members into workable majorities for their legislative priorities.
“There’s a tendency frankly to greatly exaggerate the difference they’ll make,” former representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts said of new lawmakers. “You can make a difference within the constraints you get.”
Fresh-faced members determined to make changes have come before Pressley and left Washington defeated. Patrick Murphy, a Florida Democrat who gave up his seat in the House after four years, said he and other young lawmakers were frequently frustrated that they lacked the seniority needed to enact solutions to problems they cared about.
“We know we can do this,” Murphy said, of issues like climate change or infrastructure, “and wait, we’re going to have 10 years . . . before we can even be in this position?”
Even if Democrats manage to pass bills through the House, the GOP-controlled Senate and White House will be a tougher sell.
On the gun task force, Pressley hopes to develop legislation to expand background checks to all gun purchases, close the so-called boyfriend loophole to make it harder for convicted domestic abusers to buy firearms, and develop an assault weapons ban.
Despite a steady drumbeat of mass shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012, Congress hasn’t passed any significant legislation aimed at tightening gun regulations.
“It’s up to us to foster and to build and to create that appetite,” Pressley said.
Pressley has some experience bringing change to staid institutions — and raising her profile in the process. In 2009, she became the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, joining a body that seemed permanently stuck in the shadow of the long-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino. There, Pressley formed a committee on women and families and worked year after year on politically tricky issues such as expanding the availability of condoms in the Boston Public Schools and bringing more liquor licenses to minority communities in an effort to grow the local economy.
“You don’t win these seats in Boston dominated by men and then take on a popular challenger without being comfortable bucking the system,” said Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “She’s certainly used to coming into an institution that is dominated by white guys and not playing by those normal rules.”
Pressley, who campaigned for Congress on the slogan “change can’t wait,” has befriended other budding progressive superstars new to Washington such as Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman elected to Congress, and Omar, one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress.
Instagram photos of the group hanging out have gone viral, with fans seeing the women’s electoral triumph as a symbol of America’s pushback to Donald Trump, and Vanity Fair has come calling for a photo shoot in the Capitol.
Ocasio-Cortez said she and Pressley “lean on each other” to get through the heightened media attention and sky-high expectations.
“It’s just been a real blessing to have each other in the chamber because I do think that the pressure of all of it on any single one of us would be very overwhelming in other circumstances,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who will represent New York’s 14th District.
Pressley is one of the most recognizable members of her cohort, but she is taking on obligations selectively. She turned down requests to run as freshman class president or to cochair the House Democrats’ campaign arm. She says she wants to focus on her district.
But she has been willing to wade into one of the national party’s most central debates: whether its candidates will be better positioned to win back the White House and the Senate by wooing moderate voters or — as she has advocated — by galvanizing new progressive voters and expanding the electorate.
In private conversations, Pressley has urged Pelosi and other party leaders to launch a post-mortem study of how House candidates won, and lost, in 2018.
“We were successful because we didn’t make assumptions about who desired or deserved a seat at the table of democracy,” Pressley said of her class of new members. “Every constituency that was seen as unlikely showed up.”