Whoever wins the Massachusetts 7th Congressional district Democratic primary on September 4th will be uncontested in November and serve in the next Congress. It will be a Democrat, but what kind and what difference will that make for us?
In the intergenerational struggle for control of the Democratic Party, Ayanna Pressley, 44, hopes to unseat long-term incumbent Michael Capuano,66, from the office he has held for two decades. Although neither a millennial nor newcomer to political office, she is both black and female in the state’s only majority -minority district. She and her supporters tout Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ defeat of 10-term rep Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district as a model for if not predictor of our 7th district outcome. But that’s a stretch. Crowley’s eyes were on his potentially replacing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. He didn’t engage back in the district, highhandedly even sending a staffer to debate his opponent . And he paid the price. Mike Capuano is no Joe Crowley.
As Tip O’Neill , who used to represent this district, advised, “All politics is local.” National messages won’t work here- especially in an off-year election, where the distinctive characteristics of the candidates and their respective GOTV operations count more. Primaries are usually low turnout contests, even more so this year, with a primary scheduled the day after Labor Day. For Pressley to win and buck the traditional inertia toward keeping a good incumbent, she will need to bring out not only new voters but also disproportionately animate communities of color that tend not to vote in off-year elections. When they’ve voted, they have justifiably supported her opponent. It’s a tough but not impossible task.
Pressley embodies a new wave in what Democrats hope will be part of a nationwide blue wave. A victim of abuse, she has a compelling life story. She is bright, attractive, accomplished and reasonably articulate, the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council, the city’s top vote-getter in three successive elections. Her motto, “change cannot wait,” speaks to the energy driving the Me Too movement, and, at a minimum, she’ll give usually unopposed Capuano a run for his money. But these are no ordinary times.
The seventh is the most diverse of the state’s congressional districts, comprising 70 percent of Boston, parts of Somerville and Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Milton and Randolph. The older white guy can’t change his age, sex or race to appeal to voters. If you’re a voter who puts identity politics first, he’s not your guy. But Capuano has served the district well. Witness his 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the NAACP, League of Conservation Voters and other organizations. He has been an energetic and effective advocate for progressive causes, and he has brought money home to the district, including the Green Line extension, the Fairmount Line, Ruggles Station, harbor dredging, housing projects and community health centers. And this isn’t just a question of what he has already done, but what he will be positioned to do if the Democrats regain control off the House.
If that happens, Springfield Congressman Richie Neal will chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Worcester’s Jim McGovern will chair the critically important Rules Committee, and Michael Capuano will chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Capuano could also chair a financial services subcommittee dear to the Massachusetts economy. When you have one of the good guys, seniority matters.
Transportation is always at the top of the list of challenges facing our otherwise robust economy, along with the high cost of housing. Capuano can be depended upon to drive dollars to Massachusetts to address its woefully underfunded public transit and highway systems. This is directly relevant to urban and minority constituents desperately needing access to existing and future jobs, helping to attract companies seeking to relocate here. Massachusetts has not seen that kind of congressional power since the days of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Joe Moakley and Ted Kennedy.
Capuano and Pressley differ little on the issues. It’s a question of emphasis. As she seeks to differentiate herself, she talks about the authenticity of her connections with the community, rife with systemic inequalities. She says that “those close to the pain should be close to the power.” But, unlike New York’s incumbent Crowley, Capuano has always been a presence in the district. He calls himself a “street fighter,” and he is. He’s scrappy, intelligent, experienced and strategic. In their debates, Pressley has her well polished thematic talking points, making for sound bites but weak on details, especially on foreign policy. Capuano can go big picture and get into the policy weeds. I’ve done both with him, and he’s the real deal. Not only a visible advocate for important legislation, he knows how to play the cloakroom amendments game and how to quietly work a budget appropriation to benefit his constituents.
Pressley has a bright future in politics, and I’m not saying to her “wait your turn.” We need more women and people of color in Congress. She has every right to run, and it’s probably a propitious time for her to do so. There is an anti-establishment mood among many Democrats, a desire to open opportunities for the next generation. All that’s good, but it’s also important not to throw out the old baby with the bath water. If elected, she’d have a steep learning curve.
This isn’t a contest between good and evil. It’s between good and better. In making a choice, MA 7th district voters would do well not to succumb to ageism but to see experience and clout in the context of these times, when Massachusetts has been marginalized and needs federal dollars more than ever. The ability to bring those home, combined with highly progressive values and track record, should be validated when primary voters go to the polls September 4th. I like Mike.