Identity Politics Should Not Figure In The Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District Race [Opinion]

On Thursday, February 1, 2018, U.S. Representative Michael Capuano addresses constituents at a town hall-style event at the Cambridge Public Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Steven Senne / AP Images

Many heard Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speak for the first time in 2009. It was at an event on Boylston Street in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood. They did not know who she was as it was her first foray into politics as a candidate. She was running for an at-large city council seat. That year, however, it was a crowded race. There were 15 candidates, including two popular incumbents: John Connolly and Stephen Murphy.

All of the candidates had the opportunity to address the crowd that had filled up this medium-size room. Peppered with questions from journalist David Bernstein, they took turns in trying to connect with the curious, engaged audience. At one point, in response to one of Bernstein’s question, Ms. Pressley memorably said that it had been a bit hard to get “some oxygen” in the race.

She, nevertheless, had. She was a polished speaker with a beautiful delivery. She was also one of several minorities running for an at-large seat. Equally and notably, she was the only female candidate. Some whispered about the possibility of history being made in Boston’s political world with the election of Pressley to the council. In September of that year, she indeed became the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaks during a meeting in Boston City Hall on Wednesday, January 13, 2016. Elise Amendola / AP Images

In January, shortly after winning her fifth term on the council, Pressley announced her decision to challenge United States Representative Michael Capuano in the 2018 Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District seat.

Her move has prompted many to question her decision. Capuano, who is a Somerville native with ties to Boston, is a well-respected figure in the state’s political circles. First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, he has equally served on the Somerville Board of Aldermen and as mayor of Somerville.

According to Boston.com, Pressley, defending her bid, has said that “residents of the district need more than just an ally. They need an advocate and a champion.” Still, she has not been able to speak at length regarding the differences between her and the seasoned Capuano. Further, much of the buzz that has been generated about Pressley’s bid stems from her being a young black woman.

Many have welcomed and even championed the idea of electing more women to office. Moreover, they believe that politicians should be a more racially diverse lot in order to reflect the constituency truly.

In a recent interview with Boston Magazine, U.S. Representative Capuano discussed and acknowledged the importance of gender and color (as well as record).

He said, “Look, I cannot be a woman of color, you know? And if that’s what people care about that’s fine. I accept that, I understand that. I just don’t think there are that many people who will vote for me because I’m a white male or vote against me because I’m a white male. Ninety-nine percent of my constituents will look way beyond those things. It’s a factor, but the bigger factor is what can you do for me? What can you do for my family? What position are you in to push the issues we care about and to successfully do that?”

It is hard to counter this argument given the wide support Capuano has already garnered inside the state and beyond. His efforts to confront problems within a wide variety of areas, including education and human rights, have earned him the endorsements of not only most of his colleagues in Massachusetts but also some of Pressley’s on the city council. In addition, New England Cable News reported that U.S. Representative John Lewis, a civil rights leader, has thrown his support to Michael Capuano.

Hence, in the months ahead, to win the Democratic primary, Ayanna Pressley must be able to offer more than the possibility of being a new messenger that uses a different optic. Her identity cannot supplant her platform and the reasons that she has for running for this seat. Further, it should not eclipse any message that she wishes to impart.

Additionally, she must provide an answer to an essential question. It does not concern, as Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham argued in a recent piece, the indignity of Pressley “waiting her turn.” Rather, the question revolves around what is best for the residents of Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District. In Capuano, are the residents settling for less than they deserve?

It will be a real challenge for Pressley to make this argument. Capuano distributes a regular newsletter, which, among other things, shares his schedule and voting record.

Further, he tried to address transportation issues in underserved communities before many other politicians and activists did. In April of 2017, he donated $53,000 of his campaign funds to pay for a fare-free period of two weeks on the Fairmount commuter rail line in an effort to boost ridership. This effort followed Capuano’s attempt to address what he viewed as “discriminatory treatment in a negative way” of the line in 2016.

As the months progress, there will be a lot of discussion about the achievements of both politicians; the records of both, as opposed to race or gender, will be the only indicator of what residents of the district can expect that ultimately counts.