RALEIGH, N.C. — As Senator Elizabeth Warren’s town hall event began Thursday night in a high school auditorium here, the crowd rose to deliver a standing ovation.
It was not for Warren.
“My name is Ayanna Pressley,” said the Massachusetts representative who had endorsed Warren’s Democratic presidential bid the day before.
Pressley led the crowd in a rousing speech that sounded like a Sunday sermon, complete with a refrain of “I came to spread the good news.” That good news, she said, was that Warren is running for president. Then Warren took the stage and gave Pressley a hug.
“We have fought side-by-side for people who don’t have a voice in this political system. That’s why we’re here,” Warren said. “It is not only an honor to fight alongside Ayanna, it is a pleasure to fight alongside Ayanna.”
The moment showed that Pressley’s endorsement could be beneficial to both of them.
Warren gained a prominent black supporter who could be a valuable surrogate during the Democratic primary campaign. But Pressley ultimately could be the bigger winner because of the brighter spotlight her efforts for Warren could deliver.
“For Pressley, who is a rising star in this party, this elevates her profile and her voice and I believe it elevates some of the issues she has championed in Congress,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “It would be malpractice if [Pressley] does not come to South Carolina and spend significant time or even come to the South period” to campaign for Warren.
As a member of the so-called Squad of four first-term congresswomen of color, Pressley has quickly gained national attention after unseating a longtime incumbent in 2018 in the state’s most diverse district. But although Pressley champions the same progressive agenda as her Squad sisters, she has taken a less controversial and more traditional path in Washington, working with longtime politicians and newcomers alike.
Her endorsement of Warren is likely to vault Pressley even higher if she takes on a prominent role campaigning for the Massachusetts senator, who has struggled to reach black voters.
“There is a lot more to Ayanna Pressley, obviously, than demographics, but she’s going to help if she can help some African-Americans take a second pass at Elizabeth Warren,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
O’Brien said Pressley played the Warren endorsement wisely, waiting to announce it until the day after the local elections in Massachusetts this week. Pressley endorsed candidates in the races for Boston and Chelsea city councils, signaling that she remembers where she comes from.
“No one can accuse her of going national without the local,” O’Brien said.
And in that sense, Pressley’s endorsement is not radical at all. Warren is the senior senator from Massachusetts and the traditional rules of politics would call this a no-brainer.
But Pressley didn’t join many of her colleagues in the Massachusetts congressional delegation in endorsing Warren earlier this year. And in backing Warren, Pressley broke with the three other members of the Squad — Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlalib, and Ilhan Omar — who all recently endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Thursday’s stop was Warren’s first in North Carolina, a visit that signaled she is focused not only on the four earliest contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, but also on the slew of states that vote after that on Super Tuesday, March 3.
Warren started the day in North Carolina in Greensboro at North Carolina A&T State University, the largest public historically black college or university in the country.
Pressley was Warren’s “surprise guest” at the end of the event, coming on stage to greet the auditorium of mostly black students who had come to watch Warren tape a live episode of the “One on One with Angela Rye” podcast.
When Pressley took the stage she thanked Warren for addressing many types of inequalities instead of pandering to black voters by addressing stereotypical topics.
“I am so tired of elected officials and politicians that come in and try to engage and speak to our community through the lens of one issue. They only come to black folks and talk about criminal justice reform,” Pressley said.
Pressley also pushed back gently on recent shots against Warren by former vice president Joe Biden, who called her “elitist.”
“As smart as she is — and she is, we know she’s a professor, and she has a plan for everything — she’s also an empathetic and intentional student of the people, and that is what this country needs and it is certainly what everyone in this room deserves,” Pressley said.
In 2012, when Pressley was on the Boston City Council, she campaigned for Warren in her first US Senate race. Six years later, Pressley launched a Democratic primary challenge against Representative Michael Capuano in 2018 and Warren stayed out of the race. But Warren’s decision not to back a longtime incumbent, as other members of the state’s congressional delegation did, was seen as tacit support of Pressley.
On stage in Greensboro, Pressley mentioned her paternal grandmother, whom she said died in childbirth in the 1950s. Black women today still die at a much higher rate during childbirth, largely because of racial bias in the health care system.
“I’m with Elizabeth Warren because she knows that when everybody else gets a cold, black folks get pneumonia and I mean literally and metaphorically,” Pressley said.
Students at the Greensboro event said they had heard of Pressley but didn’t know much about her. “She’s very powerful,” said East Dockery, 19, a multimedia journalism major from Greensboro.
Ashton Stepter, 19, a computer science major from Ohio, liked that Pressley acknowledged black voters want to hear about more than criminal justice reform and other stereotypical topics.
He and his two friends said they are fans of Warren after seeing her in person.
“Now that I heard her exact plans, I’m like, ‘This is my candidate,’ ” said Manny McDuffie, 18, an animal science major from Maryland.