It wasn’t supposed to happen. Ayanna Pressley trailed Rep. Joe Capuano by 13 percentage points in the last poll before Tuesday’s Democratic primary to represent Massachusetts’s 7th district in Congress. When Capuano, a 10-term incumbent, conceded an hour after the polls closed, he was trailing Pressley by 18 points. Because there is no Republican running in the district, the 44-year-old Pressley, who in 2009 became Boston’s first female African-American city council member, is now expected to become the first African-American woman from the state to serve in the House of Representatives. The victory is yet a another sign of a demographic sea change taking place within the Democratic party, with constituents opting for fresh, aggressively progressive candidates over establishment mainstays. Appropriately, Pressley’s campaign slogan was #ChangeCantWait.
“People who feel seen and heard for the first time in their lives, a stakehold in democracy and a promise for our future,” she told supporters. “That is the real victory, that is bigger than any electoral victory. And I want to thank you all for being foot soldiers in this movement and for ushering in this change.”
It’s hard to overstate how much of an underdog Pressley was against Capuano, who had represented the district for 20 years. Everyone from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to Georgia congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis endorsed the the 66-year-old incumbent. Though Capuano was a staunch progressive in his own right, he was old, white and part of the establishment that many Democratic voters have grown tired of. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but this is life, and this is OK,” said Capuano. “America’s going to be OK. Ayanna Pressley is going to be a good congresswoman, and I will tell you that Massachusetts will be well served.”
Pressley was understandably emotional when she learned she’d won.
— Jesse Mermell (@jessemermell) September 5, 2018
Like many of the other new candidates who have emerged this year, Pressley supports Medicare-for-all, abolishing ICE and other progressive policies that the mainstream left has yet to fully embrace. Her primary victory over Capuano recalls Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley, also a 10-term incumbent, in New York’s 14th congressional district. Though Pressley is not an outsider like Ocasio-Cortez and Capuano is far more progressive than Crowley, Capuano accepted corporate money, which, like Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley has refused to do. Out-raised by a wide margin, she ran a grassroots campaign based on small donations, social media and on-the-ground activism. “@AyannaPressley + I bonded over running while constantly told it’s ‘not our turn,’ that we ‘weren’t ready,’ ‘good enough,’ or ‘experienced’ enough,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Tuesday night. “We kept going anyway. In June, I won my primary. Tonight, she won hers. Here’s to November.”
Memo to potential candidates considering a run someday across America: our only paid television ads for the ENTIRE @ayannapressley campaign were on Telemundo and Univision. Besides that, our message was spread entirely on the doors, phones, and via social and earned media.
— Alex Goldstein (@alexjgoldstein) September 5, 2018
Both Pressley and Capuano admitted that their policy positions were similar. The former separated herself by instilling a sense of urgency while positioning herself as someone with firsthand understanding of the struggles of the working class and the oppressed. She is a survivor of sexual assault; a daughter to an activist mother and a drug-addicted father; and a black woman seeking to represent a liberal district made up of mostly of people of color. “Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power,” she said during her campaign. “That is the mantle I will carry with me to Congress.”
She preached a similar message during her victory speech Tuesday night. “Are you ready to come to Congress with me? Are you ready to bring change to Washington?” she said to cheers. “For the families and victims of senseless gun violence, change can’t wait. For our brothers and sisters behind the wall, change can’t wait. For our immigrants worried about the knock on the door, change can’t wait. To women whose rights are perpetually under attack, change can’t wait. To the residents of the 7th congressional district, change can’t wait. To the many families like my own, who grew up feeling like it was us versus the world, that the government didn’t reflect us, didn’t represent us, didn’t advocate for us, didn’t see us, change can’t wait.”