Last October, the Tufts Observer spoke to Ayanna Pressley about her 2009 election to the Boston City Council. As the first woman of color elected to the Council in its 100-plus years of existence, Pressley’s victory was groundbreaking—described by some as a “political earthquake.” Despite this, Pressley remained modest about her achievement.
“I am the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, but I am not the first woman of color to run,” she said. “Every time a woman of color ran, the electorate became more adjusted to the idea.”
It appears Pressley was right. In November 2017, the Council and several other local offices saw record numbers of women of color joining their ranks. And on September 4, 2018, Pressley made history once again when she ousted 10-term congressional incumbent Mike Capuano in the MA-07 Democratic Primary by an astounding 17.2 points. With no Republican challenger, Pressley is all but assured to become the first Black woman to hold a Massachusetts seat in US Congress.
Pressley’s victory ran a shockwave through both the state and the nation. The news made instant headlines, with claims that her win exemplified a changing American electorate—one hungry for newer, younger politicians passionate about progressive ideals. And on college campuses like Tufts, many young people have found themselves among those most invigorated by her success.
“I think young people were everything in this victory,” said Sarah Groh, Pressley’s campaign manager. “I’m pretty familiar with the narrative of young folks as being apathetic, being disconnected… but I think we’ve proved that wrong in this election.”
Young voters are often the ones shaking up elections by refusing to equate “Democrat” with “progressive.” Furthermore, voters of all ages are assigning increasing weight to the diversity of their politicians.
This is a key element of Pressley’s District 7, Massachusetts’ only majority-minority district. It has been historically represented in Congress by middle-aged White men, including former President John F. Kennedy.
Tufts senior Olivia Ladd-Luthringshauser has lived in the district her whole life, and was an avid supporter of Pressley’s campaign. “It is a really interesting district because it spans from Boston to Somerville and includes Tufts, MIT, and Harvard along with Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan,” she said. “It is a very economically and age diverse region.”
Although Capuano had been a Representative since her childhood, for Ladd-Luthringshauser, the difference between him and Pressley was clear.
“A lot of news… reported how hard it was for Ayanna to find political differences with Capuano because he has loyally been one of the most liberal voters in Congress,” she said. “But he is a [White] middle aged man who is out of touch with what his district actually looks like… Ayanna has such a more focused approach to eradicating poverty, building healthy communities, and empowering women and girls.”
Winnie Zhang, a Tufts alumna who graduated in 2016 and now works in Boston City Government, was also inspired by Pressley, and volunteered for her campaign.
“I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and so often the politicians I see are just status quo,” Zhang said. “[Ayanna’s] been a City Councilor for eight years and during that time she’s always made an effort to reach out to constituents [and] especially to communities that are often marginalized, and that’s pretty rare I think for an elected official.”
Groh echoed this evaluation. “There were a lot of times that we were in rooms where politicians rarely go,” she said. “I’ll never forget one really poignant day on the trail where she sat down with young women—mostly teenagers—who were personally impacted by sex trafficking. Her proximity to those most affected by these issues make her a really effective policy maker, but that’s also just authentic to who she is.”
Zhang added that, aside from Pressley’s keen ability to create personal connections, she also began distinguishing between Capuano and Pressley’s policy platforms as she became more acquainted with Pressley’s campaign.
“She’s someone who’s not willing to make compromises that go against her values,” she said. “Mike Capuano, he was willing to send funds to build the border wall in exchange for passing a DREAM Act… Ayanna, she very clearly stated she would be looking to pass a clean DREAM Act and wouldn’t be willing to put money towards a border wall.”
Pressley prioritizes several other issues that Zhang views as critical to communities of color, such as police violence. Ladd-Luthringshauser, too, said she trusted Pressley to pursue problems pertinent to District 7, like gentrification and the opioid epidemic.
These are topics that have been familiar to Pressley her entire life, having been raised by a single mother in Chicago.
“She has been able to leverage both her personal and professional experience in a really powerful way,” Groh said. “She talks about organizing out of necessity—the impact of policy was very present in her life and in her community, whether that was the impact of red-lining, or the war on drugs, or inequitable access to the GI bill for families of color. These issues were never abstract; they were really proximate to her lived experience.”
Throughout her career, Pressley has fought tirelessly and cunningly to defeat these issues, and many more. While sitting on the City Council, Pressley founded the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, & Communities. She worked to build a trauma-informed, person-centered, and LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education curriculum, and spearheaded a monumental initiative to provide liquor licenses to struggling restaurants in disenfranchised communities.
Many of these successes were made possible by Pressley’s willingness to collaborate across government bodies, Groh explained, such as the State House and Attorney General’s office.
“I think that approach to working with folks inside and outside of governments is definitely something she’ll bring to the Hill, and something we so desperately need right now,” she said.
This interdisciplinary style was also characteristic of Pressley’s campaign, and Zhang recalled being especially impressed by its efforts to establish strong community bonds.
“They built a coalition and they worked with community groups that were already trusted by a lot of local residents,” Zhang said. She mentioned Chinese Progressive Political Action, a C4 organization that she herself has volunteered with, and who endorsed Pressley’s campaign.
“They’re a familiar face for voters and for their members,” she said. “So when it comes time to endorse a candidate I feel that makes an even bolder statement, because it’s not just a stranger knocking your door.”
Oftentimes, that familiar face was that of Pressley herself. Kathryn Jason, a Tufts senior, and Vice President of College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDM), recalled hearing Pressley speak at a conference she organized.
“I was initially told that she just had [one to two] minutes to introduce herself and had to bounce,” she remembered. “But [her staff] changed their minds when they realized that she was speaking with a group of young people.”
Of Pressley’s speech, Jason recalled that “[her] message was so hopeful in a time where hope in politics is rare, but it wasn’t naive or unrealistic. She was incredibly engaging and interested in everyone she talked to.” She added that Pressley insisted on staying to listen to candidates give speeches for CDM’s executive board elections.
Groh agreed that attentiveness is one of Pressley’s strongest qualities. “Ayanna authentically listens to people,” Groh said. “She actually instituted the first ever listening only City Council hearing where members of the community could come and share their experience and testify, but those in positions of power or authority could only listen.”
Now, as Pressley moves forward to the general election, many are anxiously waiting to see how her empathetic leadership style and progressive policies will take shape in Congress, and who will step up to join her fight. Activism, youth engagement, and community connections will remain integral to her campaign.
“I think one of the things we’ve learned in the last two years of this administration is that whether Democrats are in the majority or minority, it is so critical to work with advocacy groups, because they can put pressure and spotlight on issues in ways that extend far beyond the formal authority of a Congressional office,” Groh said. “My hope is that… people stay engaged in the run up to November, but also that all of the first-time voters and all of the college students who voted in [District 7] continue to stay really closely engaged with our office, to hold us accountable and raise critical issues.”
Presently, the afterglow of Pressley’s victory shows no signs of letting up.
“For me, as a woman of color I definitely feel motivated to continue this work after her accomplishment,” Zhang said. “With her election, [we’re] arguing about voting true blue, and making sure that not all Democrats are the same. We want a Democrat who stands for progressive values and working-class people.”
Indeed, Pressley herself has no misgivings about the transformative power of representation, perhaps best summarized by her iconic campaign slogan, “change can’t wait.”
“When that phrase popped up it just felt so resonant and consistent with the type of campaign Ayanna wanted to run,” Groh recalled. “There is definitely a fierce sense of urgency in the seventh, in communities, and across the country right now.”
Evidently, for Pressley, the seeds of that idea were sewn long ago. As she told the Observer last year, “the more women…that come from many backgrounds to represent the diversity and the continuum of the experiences of women in our society, the more women are liberated to run, telling their own story, and standing on their own truth.”