Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

John Lewis endorses status quo by backing Michael Capuano

Representatives John Lewis and Michael Capuano walked to Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury on Saturday.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Representatives John Lewis and Michael Capuano walked to Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury on Saturday.

BE BOLD. Be courageous. That’s what triggers change, longtime congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis told Boston University graduates at their commencement ceremony on Sunday.

But on Saturday, at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, Lewis didn’t endorse change. He endorsed Representative Michael Capuano and the status quo. And by giving that political blessing, he rallied the troops — the troops who support Ayanna Pressley, Capuano’s primary challenger.

Lewis joined a phalanx of other establishment Democrats, black and white, who back Capuano, the incumbent who has represented the Seventh Congressional District for nearly 20 years. But the fact that a national figure and civil rights hero like Lewis essentially turned his back on Pressley — the first woman of color to win election to the Boston City Council — irked and energized her supporters. “I absolutely see this as a breakdown between the old guard, status quo Democratic machine and the new creative and fresh voices that are struggling to emerge from the machine,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church who backs Pressley and stayed away from the Lewis event at his own church.

Capuano supporters argue that on issues, there’s no difference between Capuano, 66, and Pressley, 44. And in Congress, they say, his seniority is a plus, particularly if Democrats regain control of the House. As Lewis said on Saturday, “People who have been around for a while, they know their way around. They know where all the bodies are buried and they know how to get things done.”

But Pressley supporters say this primary showdown will define what Democrats look and sound like as they head into the future. Age, race, and gender are distinctions that matter, they argue, especially given the challenges faced by those who live in the district. As Pressley points you, you can step onto a bus in Harvard Square and watch the “median income and life expectancy evaporate by the time you reach Dudley Station in Roxbury.”

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With Pressley, the party strategy is to isolate her as an impatient upstart who can’t win. Local Capuano backers include Mayor Marty Walsh and former governor Deval Patrick. In their own political careers, both, of course, were once seen as long shots running against favored, establishment candidates. But once the club lets you in, your job is to defend fellow club members. And with Capuano, that’s what they are doing.

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Responding to the Lewis endorsement of her opponent, Pressley issued a statement that said Lewis and leaders like him “taught me to never be afraid to challenge the status quo. I am running because the status quo has left far too many in the 7th Congressional district behind. Our country’s greatest challenges are on display for all to see in this district: it is at the same time one of the most diverse and also most unequal districts in the entire nation.”

Voters can agree Capuano and Pressley hold the same progressive values. But Pressley is asking them to consider whether the fruit of those values is experienced equally by everyone in the district. That they’re not can be a potent argument for change — one that an old civil rights activist like Lewis might appreciate.

In his BU speech, Lewis told students “we need young men and women . . . to go out there and get into trouble.” As a candidate, Pressley is following his advice to stir things up.

Lewis also urged students “to participate in the democratic process, to get out there and vote like you never voted before.” That’s an equally important message. After all, the Democratic establishment is behind Capuano. But it’s the people who decide who gets to represent them.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.