Ayanna Pressley stunned the nation when she defeated 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano in the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District Democratic primary Tuesday night, securing the nomination and a spot as the first black woman representing Massachusetts in Congress.
Capuano has been a hard stone to unlodge as a Massachusetts Congressman — for 20 years he’s had the support of party officials, big money and name recognition from years in office behind him. But if anyone could do it, Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, would be the one.
Pressley has defeated insurmountable odds to get to where she is, even before facing off against Capuano. The Democratic party has long failed to put its faith in black candidates. Yes, Obama was president, but party officials fail to put significant effort in recruiting and supporting black candidates — incumbents are safer investments, but they’re usually white. As a result, only 19 black women currently sit in Congress.
Capuano raised almost twice as much from fundraising as Pressley in the second quarter of the year, raking in more than $500,000 compared to Pressley’s $364,000. This increase in funding allowed Capuano to spend nearly twice as much than Pressley on broadcast and cable television advertising, while she was limited to advertising on two Spanish-language stations.
That Pressley still garnered more votes in the primary — a significant 59 percent of the vote — proves that the money Capuano fundraised was less about public preference in his favor and more about a simple advantage in resources. The upset the nation felt Tuesday night proves that campaigns that have people at the core are going to attract voters. Pressley ran a campaign that was for the people.
Defeating an incumbent is a feat rarely achieved. The United States’ system of political fundraising gives advantage to those already in power — super PACs are more likely to invest in candidates with name recognition.
Pressley’s victory shows that black women are capable of driving political change, even without institutional support. Her victory also reminds us of just how much better off our country could be if black women were given institutional support. When the votes of black women carry the Democratic party time and time again, most visibly during presidential elections, it should make sense that a black woman is the one being elected.
It’s important for black women to stand tall in politics. Voters are influenced by representation. Seeing themselves reflected in a candidate or member of Congress can motivate someone to take interest in a campaign. During her time as a city councilwoman, Pressley focused on structural racism in Roxbury, her district. This is an issue that no white Congressperson, no matter how much they care, can truly empathize with.
Growing up with a single mother, Pressley understands the struggles of women facing income inequality. Surviving sexual assault as a child and again in college, she worked for comprehensive sex education to be taught in the Boston Public School District. These personal experiences put Pressley in touch with her constituency in a way that someone like Capuano — someone who has similar policies but hasn’t faced the same personal challenges — can’t.
Pressley attended Boston University for two years and had to drop out when her mother lost her job. She’s been criticized for her lack of a college degree, but her experience working to support her mother has given her a passion for justice that no politician coming from family money can understand. Pressley’s experiences as a college student at BU likely drives her ambition to combat student debt and support girls’ education so that no student has to face the financial and personal struggles she did at BU.
Pressley stressed during her campaign that voters cannot simply elect Democrats and expect change to come. “It matters who those Democrats are,” she said on the night of her election. Those Democrats must be willing to step beyond what is expected and challenge those who call themselves liberal but are afraid of being labeled socialist for pushing radical policy. The Democratic party is far gone from people who crouch behind safe policies and safe speech.
The Democratic party cannot take black voters’ support for granted without giving black candidates grassroots support. BU, a university where black students make up only seven percent of the student body, cannot flaunt Pressley as a trophy when she has succeeded in spite of its lack of support.
Pressley will bring change that Capuano has hesitated on. With her motto “change can’t wait,” Pressley shows she is ready to take leaps forward and carry the party along with her. She won’t wait for support from party officials to take action on issues that matter to her constituency.