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Can Ayanna Pressley and ‘the Squad’ unite — or, like Trump, just divide?

US Representative Ayanna Pressley
US Representative Ayanna PressleyIllustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

US Representative Ayanna Pressley recently called White House counselor Kellyanne Conway “Distraction Becky” — “Becky” being a derogatory term for a white woman.

At the risk of earning the same put-down, I have some doubts about the with-us-or-against-us approach now embraced by the “Squad” of four progressive congresswomen, which includes Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Of course, what President Trump has been tweeting about them is racist and designed to galvanize his base in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. As Michelle Cottle writes in The New York Times, the Squad checks all Trump’s culture war boxes: They are “female, multiracial, multicultural, progressive, outspoken, combative, revolution-minded.” Tactically, he’s turning them into the voice of the Democratic Party, right before special counsel Robert Mueller is set to testify before Congress and the Democrats running for president are scheduled to hold their next debate.

Thanks to Trump, members of the Squad now add up to much more than the four measly votes they once represented to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So how will they use their power? To unite, or to divide? And how will Pressley in particular navigate the political road ahead?


The Squad smartly used her as their spokeswoman. She’s older, more experienced, and exceptionally eloquent, as everyone who has followed her in Massachusetts knows. In 2018, when she took on Michael Capuano, a 20-year incumbent congressman, the wise guys said there was no way she could win; there wasn’t enough ideological difference between her and Capuano to fuel a voter revolt. Barney Frank, a famously progressive congressman who served in the House from 1981 to 2013, disparaged her decision to run in a primary against another Democrat as a “fight that is being generated by personality and ego, with zero issues.”


Pressley won that fight for sure, beating Capuano by about 17 points. She made long-overdue and welcome history by becoming the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. She promised to speak up for those left out of politics and government, and make issues like gun violence, racism, domestic abuse, and economic disparity the focus of her legislative service. Up until recently, she did that with more finesse than her fellow Squad members. For example, an e-mail from the Republican National Committee, blasting the Squad for “vile, hateful, anti-Israel, and anti-American rhetoric,” cites as an example Pressley’s call for defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While the merits of that proposal are open for debate, suggesting it is not vile, hateful, anti-Israel, or anti-American.

As Frank told the Globe, “My puzzlement about Pressley is that I haven’t seen her do anything that seemed to me mistaken the way the other three have, but then she joins them, and apparently agrees with their approach, and I think their approach is very wrong.”

Pressley is definitely sharpening her tone. After Conway tweeted about a “Major Meow Mashup” between Pelosi and the Squad, Pressley tweeted her “Distraction Becky” takedown. The tweet — ending with “Yeah take a seat and keep my name out of your lying mouth” — went viral.

At a Netroots Nation conference over the weekend, Pressley also made headlines when she said anyone challenging their agenda isn’t welcome at the progressive table. “Don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice,” she said. “We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.”


To beat Trump, Democrats will need many different faces and many different voices, from left to center. There could even be votes from some conservative thinkers who are secretly sick of this divisive president. But if passing a progressive purity test applied by the Squad is the first requirement, the pool of voters drastically narrows. And so does the chance to send Trump back where from where he came.

If writing that makes me Becky, so be it.

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