New Voices on Capitol Hill

U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley tells a Tufts audience about her efforts to bring previously excluded communities to the political table
Ayanna Pressley speaking at Tufts
“It’s so that people feel seen and heard, to create space for others, so they know there are people in the halls of government who are holding those experiences and being guided by them,” Ayanna Pressley said. Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 24, 2019

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On September 4, Ayanna Pressley was getting ready to accept her defeat in the 2018 Democratic primary election for U.S. Representative in the Massachusetts seventh Congressional district, in which she had run against ten-term incumbent Michael Capuano.

“I pictured myself walking out into the union hall and looking over the audience and seeing that light, which had turned on, be extinguished,” said Pressley, who spoke to a packed ASEAN Auditorium at Tufts on April 22 as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speakers Series. “I was trying to ready myself for what I was going to say that would hold that light and keep them engaged, to say we lost, but we still won.”

It turned out to be unnecessary. Minutes later, Pressley learned she had won the primary, a moment a friend captured in a video that soon went viral. Pressley went on to run uncontested in the general election and become the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts.

In conversation with Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Pressley reflected on the beginning of her involvement in government, starting with her work as senior aide to U. S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II and to Senator John Kerry. “I had never worked in Washington, I didn’t have a degree, I didn’t know the Hill—he had all these reasons to discredit me based on conventional rules,” Pressley said of Kerry. “He took a chance on me, and changed the trajectory of my life.”

Ayanna Pressley met with students before her talk. “If veterans can fight for veterans, if people battling to overcome addiction can fight for that community, if a former ironworker can fight for workers’ rights, I’m trying to understand why women can’t stand for their truth and say I’m here to fight for women, I’m here to fight for black folks,” said Ayanna Pressley. Photo: Alonso Nichols In contrast, Pressley spoke of the pain she felt when, after making history as the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, she decided to run for Congress—and found that Democrats would turn their backs and refuse to shake her hand, accusing her of running an identity politics campaign.

“It’s a charge only lobbied against women of color,” Pressley said. “If veterans can fight for veterans, if people battling to overcome addiction can fight for that community, if a former ironworker can fight for workers’ rights, I’m trying to understand why women can’t stand for their truth and say I’m here to fight for women, I’m here to fight for black folks.”

She spoke about her campaign’s efforts to do things differently, including a decision to stay off mainstream television and appear solely on Latino channels, and a practice of asking people not for their vote, but for their account of their experience in life and with government.

“We had disruptors around the table who said, ‘We’re not going to feel pressure to live up to this conventional blueprint of how to run and win elections. We’re doing this differently,” Pressley said, pointing out that their TV strategy helped grow the Latino vote 71 percent. “That means we’re not only going to engage super-voters, we’re going to engage everyone.”

This included not just Latino individuals, but young people. Asked about her extraordinary success in Boston’s Ward 2, where a flood of BU students helped increase voter turnout more than 400 percent over 2014, Pressley spoke about an amendment she proposed to lower the voting age to sixteen.

“We went from a president who sings ‘Amazing Grace’ to one who has none,” say Ayanna Pressley. Photo: Alonso Nichols “The sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds I know are raising younger siblings, working summer and year-round jobs, contributing to civic and community life, contributing to the economy. At base level, it’s taxation without representation,” Pressley said. “You want me to tell the kids organizing from Ferguson to Parkland, who are at the forefront of every existential threat to this country, from gun violence prevention to climate change—thanks for your activism, we applaud your sweat equity, but you don’t have the right to cast a ballot?”

Asked how Democrats can unite around a common agenda when views within the party diverge so widely, Pressley spoke passionately about the value of the broad spectrum of views. “This is the biggest, most diverse, representative class in the history of Congress. Along with that comes a diversity of perspectives and lived experience,” Pressley said. “When I share my lived experience, it’s not to offer myself up as a black unicorn—it’s to acknowledge that my experience is the shared experience of millions.”

She spoke particularly about her experience as a survivor of domestic abuse and campus sexual assault, noting that people come up to her at every event and tell her they have the same story. “It’s so that people feel seen and heard, to create space for others, so they know there are people in the halls of government who are holding those experiences and being guided by them,” Pressley said.

This diversity of experiences, views, and values are creating growing pains within Congress, Pressley acknowledged. “We are building new muscle, and when we have built that muscle effectively, then we can figure out how to flex it,” she said. But she added it’s important to stick together, particularly at a time when—as Solomont pointed out—Congress may be called to vote on articles of impeachment. Weighing in on this, Pressley didn’t hold back.

“No one person is above the law, including the occupant of the White House. I don’t call him the occupant because I think it’s cute or coy or to disrespect the office of the presidency—I call it that because that’s what he does,” she said. “We went from a president who sings ‘Amazing Grace’ to one who has none.” She pushed back on those dragging their feet at taking action based on the investigation. “I think people feel we don’t want to set a dangerous precedent for lawlessness, but this occupant has already done that.”

Ultimately, Pressley compared the divisions within the Democratic Party to conflict within a large family. “When you have a family fight, you’re usually better for it on the back end,” she said. “I’m hoping that’s true for us as well—that we will be better and stronger for our family fights.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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