‘Activism Is No Longer an Option’: Could Ayanna Pressley Be the Next Progressive Upset? (Updated)

The Massachusetts Democrat vying in Tuesday's primary to represent the state’s only district that's majority people of color doesn't believe there's a place in the Democratic party for people who vote against abortion rights.

[Photo: Close-up of Ayanna Pressley speaking into microphone]
Ayanna Pressley became the first woman of color to win a seat on the Boston City Council in 2009. Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for EMILY's List

UPDATE, September 5, 7:13 a.m.: Ayanna Pressley won the primary for Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District after recieving 58.9 percent of the vote.

“It is my fundamental belief that the people closest to the pain, should be the closest to the power.”

That’s how Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley explained her governing principles in an August campaign video that shows her riding the city bus from Cambridge to Roxbury.

If she’s successful in Tuesday’s primary, she’ll oust incumbent Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano from a U.S. Congressional seat he’s held in Massachusetts for nearly two decades. Capuano, who has served over ten terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, represents Massachusetts’ seventh Congressional district—the state’s only district where the majority of residents are people of color.

“The idea that Democrats must choose whether we are the party of working class white voters or the party that lifts up people of color is a dangerous, false choice,” Pressley told Rewire.News in an email.

With endorsements from the Boston Globe, state Attorney General Maura Healey, progressive groups such as Democracy for America, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year old democratic socialist who unseated incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District Congressional Democratic primary, many wonder if Pressley could pull off the next major upset of the 2018 election season.

Pressley became the first woman of color to win a seat on the Boston City Council in 2009. In her first year, she formed the council’s Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities, which addresses issues such as domestic violence and child abuse. She has developed “a comprehensive sexual education and health curriculum … which was successfully adopted as a permanent part of the Boston Public Schools’ wellness policy,” and partnered with a racial justice organization to “convene focus groups in evidence based research to reform school disciplinary policies that contribute to the school to prison pipeline for black and latina girls,” according to her campaign site.

In 2015, Pressley won EMILY’s List’s “Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star” award, which honors state and local officeholders the organization describes as having a “commitment to community, dedication to women and families, and determination and civility.” In her acceptance speech, Pressley spoke of her historic election to Boston’s City Council and how her platform centered progressive policies and advocacy for women and girls.

EMILY’s List hasn’t weighed in on Pressley’s race this year, because, according to the New York Times, the organization has a policy of staying out of primaries involving challengers to Democratic incumbents. Capuano has the support of a number of high-profile members of the House, including Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Maxine Waters (D-CA).

Speaking with Elle in an interview published Wednesday, Pressley said her campaign may make some people uncomfortable. “I know our [congressional] campaign is one that is disruptive and makes a lot of people uncomfortable in a dark blue district where we don’t primary Democrats, but I think we are in different times. These are times that require bold activist leadership and a reliable vote,” she said.

Pressley is running on what her campaign calls an “Equity Agenda,” which recognizes how inequities in her district “are the legacy of decades of policies that have hardened systemic racism, increased income inequality, and advantaged the affluent.” She declared her candidacy because “we desperately need inclusive, transformative leadership at this pivotal moment … Activism is no longer an option, but is the expectation of our generation.”

Her agenda tackles ten topics her policies will focus on: public health, economic development, the environment, immigration, issues disproportionately impacting women and girls, transportation, violence and trauma, education, housing, and criminal justice.

Pressley, like many progressive Democrats running in primaries this year, supports passing Medicare-for-All in Congress, which she believes “will meaningfully address disparities in access to health care coverage.” Her health platform addresses both maternal health and reproductive health care. She says she would “work to expand access to alternative birthing options, including licensure for doulas, standards for midwives, improvement in postpartum mental health services, resources to reduce disparities in breastfeeding, and the consistent coverage of holistic care by public and private insurance plans.”

Pressley supports the repeal of the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from being used for most abortions; eliminating the Hyde Amendment was included in the 2016 national Democratic platform. The anti-choice restriction “disproportionately impacts low-income women, women of color, immigrants, and young people who rely on Medicaid for their healthcare coverage,” Pressley said.

In an email to Rewire.News, Pressley said that if elected she would “lead a movement and build a coalition to fight to repeal this amendment.”

“With a growing coalition of true progressives in the House—led by progressive women—I will not just vote the right way, I will be an activist leader,” she said. “In the same way that organizers and activists saved the Affordable Care Act by organizing, protesting and demanding action, we must harness and channel this progressive energy to organize and repeal this amendment.”

She also vows on her website to co-sponsor Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-CA) Real Education for Healthy Youth Act as part of her support for comprehensive sexual education. Pressley’s platform says she would fight the Trump administration’s efforts to defund the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPP) and protect the Title X federal family planning program.

When asked about the inclusion of reproductive rights under the banner of health care in her platform, Pressley told Rewire.News by email that “Reproductive freedom is a basic human right. Full stop.”

“Equity is at the center of my record and agenda for the 7th District—and while my website lists reproductive rights under the healthcare and public health section, it very well could live under my agenda for economic development, for women and girls or for education,” said Pressley. “That’s because for women, reproductive freedom is not only a healthcare issue, but an economic issue and certainly an issue of civil rights.”

Capuano also supports universal health care and co-sponsored the 2017 Expanded & Improved Medicare For All Act. Reproductive rights are not included on his campaign platform under the banner of health care, but the topic is mentioned in a section titled “Positively Impacting Women’s Lives.”

“Mike’s record in Congress reflects the seriousness with which he protects reproductive freedom,” reads his campaign site. “He has always upheld a woman’s right to choose and her right to make her own decisions about health care.” It points to his 100 percent Congressional record ratings with pro-choice groups such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Capuano in an interview with the Boston Globe expressed his opposition to the Hyde Amendment. “Capuano said he is an ardent opponent of that law …. Capuano’s campaign made Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and staunch women’s rights advocate, available to vouch for Capuano on the issue,” the publication reported. “She called him a ‘stalwart supporter’ of abortion rights who vigorously opposes the Hyde Amendment.”

He is listed as a co-sponsor of the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act of 2017, which would end the Hyde amendment if passed.

Abortion rights have come up as a point of contention between Capuano and Pressley. As the New York Times reported, Pressley brought up the topic during a recent debate in which she referenced a vote by Capuano for health care reform though it included the anti-choice Stupak Amendment, which was meant to bar the Affordable Care Act’s tax credits from subsidizing health insurance plans that cover abortion care.

“After the debate, [Capuano’s] staff produced documentation that Mr. Capuano had voted against both the Stupak Amendment and the Hyde Amendment,” the Times reported. “At the same time, Ms. Pressley’s staff documented that Mr. Capuano had later supported the landmark health care bill even though it included the Stupak Amendment.”

Though Capuano has a pro-choice voting record, he has opposed a Democratic Party litmus test on abortion rights. “That’s crazy, that’s nuts,” he told the Boston Herald Radio’s “Morning Meeting” in August 2017. “I’m as pro-choice as anybody,” he said. “But again that’s a classic issue. It’s very emotional, very hard to debate, but at the same time I respect people who stand up to say, ‘I’m pro-life.’ I don’t agree with them, and I’ll probably vote against their issues most of the time … but I respect their clarity of vision. And I somewhat envy that to some degree.”

“Democrats should be welcoming to anyone who shares our general values,” he continued, noting that he would support a Democratic candidate who opposes abortion rights if he thought they were running in a district that supported those views. “I have a thousand things on the agenda that are critically important, and we need to move forward,” Capuano said.

Pressley told Rewire.News that “a Democrat who will vote against choice does not have a place in the party.”

“A woman’s right to control her own body is not a political calculation and it is not a bargaining chip—it is a basic human right and a central tenet of our party,” she said. “I believe in expanding our electorate and bringing in people with diverse views, but I will never compromise on upholding basic human rights and equality for women. I understand that there are Democrats, who for personal or faith reasons, are personally opposed to abortion, and I respect their personal views, as long it doesn’t result in policy that infringes on women’s rights.”

“Unlike my opponent, I am opposed to the Democratic Party investing resources into electing candidates who will not take a firm stand and support women’s rights to access legal and safe abortion,” Pressley continued.

Capuano’s campaign did not directly answer questions from Rewire.News about how his position on reproductive rights differs from Pressley’s or whether he stands by his comments about anti-choice Democrats.

According to the New York Times, the MA-07 primary is viewed by some as a “a proxy fight for the future of the party.”

When asked whether the candidate agreed with that characterization, Audrey Coulter, Capuano’s communications director, told Rewire.News in a statement that “Mike believes we are in the fight of our lives against Donald Trump’s destructive policies. We need to keep Mike on the front lines of that fight taking on Trump for the people of the 7th district.” She added that Capuano has been “a tireless progressive champion for working families, immigrants, communities of color, seniors and kids, in the fights critical to protecting our most fundamental values. That’s what he does. That’s who he is.”

Pressley, however, suggested that the race was about more than that. It “is part of a larger fight for active, unapologetic progressive values that will strengthen the Democratic Party and strengthen our communities across the country,” she said.

“As Democrats, we must be about more than simply opposing Donald Trump. As important as it is to resist, it is equally important to passionately move forward,” said Pressley. “The entrenched inequalities and disparities are growing worse under this President, but they existed long before he arrived.”