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SOMERVILLE, Mass. — On a sweltering July Saturday in this city a few miles west of Boston, Ayanna Pressley is making a pitch for change. She’s speaking to a mix of prospective voters and volunteers ready to canvass the neighborhood, echoing a case that is being made by insurgent Democratic candidates across the country: The fight against President Trump is important, but there is also an urgent need to change the status quo of the Democratic Party.
Pressley, a member of the Boston City Council, is attempting to unseat Rep. Michael Capuano, a 10-term incumbent who previously served as mayor of Somerville, in the congressional primary for Massachusetts’s Seventh District. Her race has been compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful challenge of Rep. Joe Crowley in New York, a victory that served as a warning sign to Democratic incumbents and an inspiration to leftist candidates across the country. The upset win immediately elevated Ocasio-Cortez to talk-show and political stardom and launched her on a barnstorming tour across the Midwest, hoping to create a nationwide network of young, progressive officials.
Both Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez are endorsed by the Justice Democrats, a group born from the Bernie Sanders campaign that is sending staffers around the country attempting to build on the momentum of the Ocasio-Cortez victory. The Justice Democrats’ platform includes turning down corporate donations, enacting single-payer health care, tuition-free public college and the abolition of ICE. They are active in 38 House, Senate and state-level races around the country.
There are similarities between the New York and Boston races: Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez are both leftist women of color running against older, white, male incumbents. But Pressley, 44, is 16 years older than first-time candidate Ocasio-Cortez and was the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, in 2009. And while Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and worked as an organizer for Sanders in 2016, Pressley supported Hillary Clinton, serving as a surrogate throughout the race.
Another key difference in the race is that while Crowley was seen as part of a calcified and centrist Democratic House leadership by the left wing of the party, progressive Democrats would find little to criticize in Capuano’s record. He has supported Medicare for all since 2005, voted against both the Iraq War and creation of ICE, has a 100 percent score from Planned Parenthood and the endorsement of Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon from Georgia. Capuano also pushed back against the Obama White House as part of a lawsuit over a missile strike on Libya.
But Pressley is aware of that and has tailored her pitch accordingly, stating that voting correctly is not enough and this moment requires leadership by a legislator who better represents the majority-minority district. “Hate from the White House can’t be defeated by a vote, only by a movement,” Pressley, who would become the first black woman in the Massachusetts congressional delegation if she were to win, said at one campaign stop.
Ocasio-Cortez successfully portrayed Crowley as an absentee congressman who skipped out on debates with his challenger, but that’s not the case in the Seventh District, where the opponents will take part in a number of forums and debates between now and the Sept. 4 primary. Capuano told Yahoo News it took some convincing for some of his friends — particularly those in Washington — to take the race seriously at the beginning but he knew he was in for a challenge from the start, canceling an annual January vacation and settling in for door-knocking and events in the district with the House now in its August recess. This is Capuano’s first major challenge since winning the seat in 1998, surviving a 10-way Democratic primary with 23.2 percent of the vote.
“My voting record is great but I’m also a strong and effective advocate both on behalf of the district and the issues the district cares about,” said Capuano, noting the federal money for transportation and housing brought to the district during his tenure and his role as the author of the legislation that created the Office of Congressional Ethics.
The Pressley campaign’s day illustrated the diversity of the district, as she met with leaders from the Puerto Rican and Haitian communities and hosted an event including volunteers in union T-shirts and members of the Nation of Islam, outside the mosque where Malcolm X once served as minister. The campaign counted 28 events over the course of the day, with Pressley speaking at six of them. While she criticized President Trump in each of her appearances, he’s far from the focal point. A common refrain is that while things have become worse for many people under Trump, the systemic inequalities and disparities long predate his presidency: discriminatory housing policies including redlining by mortgage lenders, income disparities and President Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul.
When Yahoo News asked her how this squared with her support of Hillary Clinton, Pressley said that the only way to find a candidate with whom you agree on every issue is to run yourself.
Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez were friendly on social media but didn’t meet until a house party fundraiser in New York a few weeks before the New York primary. In a video recorded by the musician Questlove and posted by Ocasio-Cortez to her Twitter account, the two women are side by side giving mini-versions of their stump speeches. Pressley’s staff is still finalizing the date for a campaign event with Ocasio-Cortez before the Sept. 4 Massachusetts primary. Means of Production, the studio that created Ocasio-Cortez’s popular campaign ad, has expressed interest in working with Pressley.
Everyone associated with the Pressley campaign, from candidate down to volunteers, said the Ocasio-Cortez win was a key moment for the race. That night Pressley publicly congratulated Ocasio-Cortez and in turn the New Yorker quoted Pressley and tweeted “Vote her in next, Massachusetts.” What followed was a bump in donations, social media followers and also the belief that the upset was actually possible. Capuano has more money on hand than Pressley, but she’s raised over $700,000, a smaller gap than Ocasio-Cortez faced with Crowley. Polling in primaries is usually limited and questionable in its accuracy, but one survey released on July 23 had Capuano up 38-29, with a third of the sample undecided.
“Alex is my sister in change,” said Pressley in an interview with Yahoo News between campaign events. “She is inspiring. She defied conventional wisdom about who has a right to run and when they should run and whether or not they can win. I think her victory inspires people on the ground here about the plausibility of a victory in the Seventh, but I won’t inherit a victory. It’ll be earned in sweat equity one voter at a time just like her victory was.”
Pressley and her campaign manager said that if she wins her primary, making her a heavy favorite in this Democratic district — as Ocasio-Cortez is in New York — they would work to help other progressive candidates across the country in more competitive midterm races. Pressley’s campaign sent one of its campaign aides to help with the final push in New York, joining other Justice Democrats in what resulted in one of the group’s first major victories. The candidate endorsed by the Justice Democrats, Kara Eastman, won a primary upset against the establishment candidate in Nebraska’s Second District in May, but nonpartisan analysts have that race rated as Lean Republican.
Ocasio-Cortez has sent volunteers to help Pressley’s campaign, and donors, volunteers and its field director to help Kerri Evelyn Harris’s effort against incumbent Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. Harris and her team drove to New York to help with Ocasio-Cortez’s get-out-the-vote operation in the final days of the primary campaign. Harris said being in New York’s 14th on primary day and seeing the excitement of the volunteers has been motivating for her campaign, which has seen a surge in volunteers as it approaches the Sept. 6 primary.
“Our races very much mirror each other,” said Harris of the Ocasio-Cortez win, “and it went from people saying ‘We really do need change, but is it possible?’ then when it happened ‘Absolutely, it’s possible.’ It really was just a driving force.”
Last month Ocasio-Cortez visited Kansas, Missouri and Michigan, rallying for other Justice Democrat endorsees. In Kansas she and Sanders appeared at a rally with Brent Welder, who’s attempting to win a competitive Democratic primary to face Rep. Kevin Yoder in the Third District, which Clinton won in 2016. Welder told Yahoo News he’s been texting with Ocasio-Cortez and asked both her and Sanders to come rally in the Kansas City suburbs. (Welder campaigned for Sanders in 2016, and Sanders endorsed Welder in the primary race in June.) They obliged, and the effect was immediate: According to Welder, they added 254 volunteers and raised nearly $110,000 in the week following the rally.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez also attended an event with James Thompson, who’s running in Kansas’s Fourth District. Thompson said his campaign got an immediate bump in volunteers and donations, but that the network of support with his fellow candidates extended beyond the rally.
“We have a group chat between Justice Democrats, we’ve got one with Brand New Congress as well, another one with just progressive candidates across the country in general,” said Thompson. “It’s nice to have that because you have a support network that you can talk to and run things by and people you can talk to who understand the frustrations of daily campaigning. It’s been phenomenal to have that network of support.”
After rallying with Welder and Thompson, Ocasio-Cortez joined Cori Bush in St. Louis, where Bush is attempting to unseat incumbent Rep. Lacy Clay, who’s been Missouri’s First District representative since 2001. (His father, Bill, preceded him, occupying the seat from 1969 to 2001.) Bush and Ocasio-Cortez first met at a retreat for the organization Brand New Congress in April 2017 and have been in touch ever since. Following Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Bush made a joint appearance with her on MSNBC, an immediate transfer of attention from the Bronx and Queens to St. Louis. Bush planned to travel to New York to help prior to its primary but a car accident left her unable to travel. Ocasio-Cortez still covered her end of the deal with a late July visit.
“It’s been a bump in everything,” said Bush of the aftermath of the Ocasio-Cortez visit. “We got our first bump when Alex won, because she said my name in her victory speech and then tweeted about me. When she came here and after the rally, another bump in donations, another bump in attention, social media, media, also volunteers. People are phone banking across the country, people are sending donations from across the country, and people are coming in to canvass. People are canvassing all the time, it’s just amazing.”
The latest tour stop from Ocasio-Cortez was in Michigan, where former Detroit city health director Abdul El-Sayed, 33, is running in a competitive gubernatorial primary on a platform of a statewide single-payer health care system. Polling showed El-Sayed, who if elected would become the first Muslim governor in America, in third place before he held four rallies with the left’s rising star, which Adam Joseph, El-Sayed’s communications director, said “buoyed” the campaign. Polling in the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary had Sanders down by more than 20 points before his eventual victory there. Sanders has also endorsed El-Sayed. The Kansas, Missouri and Michigan primaries are all on Aug. 7.
Following her victory, Ocasio-Cortez’s media tour has included everything from “Meet the Press” to “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” She’s gained hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and serves as a younger Latina complement to Sanders as a leader of the progressive movement. But Ocasio-Cortez’s ascension to the spotlight has attracted criticism for her platform from both conservatives and moderates. After some controversial statements, she has admitted to needing to get up to speed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has been criticized for trying to position herself as a national leader before she’s even won her seat.
Vigie Ramos Rios, Ocasio-Cortez’s co-campaign manager, told Yahoo News that it was important to help support candidates who would vote for a progressive platform and that Ocasio-Cortez’s itinerary was already mostly in place before her primary victory and the spotlight that followed. Ramos Rios said the plan is to spend most of September and October in the district, campaigning for the general election.
While Kansas, Missouri and Michigan vote next week, there’s still another month in the race for the Massachusetts Seventh. Pressley recently gained endorsements from the 1.9 million-member Service Employees International Union and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, while both of the Bay State’s U.S. senators have stayed neutral in the race, a move that could be seen as a win for the outsider candidate. But Capuano has his own slew of endorsements, including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, former Gov. Deval Patrick, the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts and Rep. Maxine Waters.
Considering the primary is the day after Labor Day in a district that hasn’t had a competitive race in two decades, it’s reasonable to expect low turnout similar to N.Y.-14, which could potentially be to the challenger’s advantage. Crowley won the 2016 general election with 147,587 votes, or 82.9 percent. Ocasio-Cortez won the primary against him with just 15,897 votes, showing the power of a motivated minority.
Over the next few months, progressive Democratic candidates will have the opportunity to make their cases in red, blue and purple states. It will be a test of the theory that the party can increase turnout from nonvoters and win back the support of some of the white working class that went for Trump in 2016 if it presents a populist economic message that cuts across racial divides. It will also reveal if the Ocasio-Cortez victory was a fluky blip or the start of a wave and how to judge the effectiveness of a candidate who’s mainly stumping for underdogs. With the future of the Democratic Party up for grabs, these races will help candidates decide what kind of message to run on in 2020 and beyond.
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