BOSTON — Ayanna Pressley knew it was going to be tough mounting a primary challenge to an incumbent Democratic congressman in Massachusetts, a state that often rewards politicians with near-lifetime jobs.
Then someone Pressley counts as a friend — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — stunned the New York Democratic establishment, and the nation, with her primary victory last month over 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley.
Suddenly, the 44-year-old black Boston city councilor’s efforts to unseat U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano — another longtime white, male, middle-aged politician — in the state’s Sept. 4 primary seems less far-fetched.
“Alex and her race is an inspiring one because it challenges conventional wisdom and narratives about who has a right to run and when, and who can win,” Pressley said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to be disruptive in our democracy and our policy-making and how we run and win elections.”
The Massachusetts contest is yet another reminder of the rifts tearing at the Democratic Party, with more liberal, often younger voters calling for a newer, more diverse leadership.
Capuano, 66, said he understands the urge among some for new faces.
“If that’s what people want. That’s fine. That’s not new: ‘Throw the bums out’ is in pretty much every campaign ever,'” he told the AP. “As a generic statement, that’s one thing. It’s a different thing when you take that generic statement and apply it to individuals.”
One challenge for Democratic voters in the state’s 7th Congressional District may be finding policy differences between the two. Capuano is among the most liberal House members, not leaving much room on the left for Pressley.
It’s a point Capuano, first elected to the House in 1998, has tried to hammer home, pointing to his high ratings with progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood and the AFL-CIO.
“My record is pretty clear. I’m one of the most progressive members of Congress and have been since I got here,” Capuano said. “I think I’ve effectively represented every constituent group in this district.”
Pressley said the argument that she and Capuano will vote the same way misses a bigger point about leadership and building coalitions — a philosophy she said she’s used during her years at City Hall to address issues like schools, transportation and public safety.
“This is Massachusetts. Every Democrat is going to vote the same way,” Pressley said. “The hate that is coming out of this White House will not be defeated by a reliable vote on the floor of Congress. The hate coming out of this White House will be defeated by a movement and a coalition.”
Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, says the nation’s unsettled political times mean few free rides anymore for incumbents facing challenges from within their parties — a reality he said Capuano understands.
“Mike Capuano did not need a wake-up call like this to take this race seriously. I think he’s taking it as a serious challenge and Ayanna Pressley is determined to try to do in Massachusetts what was accomplished in New York,” Watanabe said.
“The lesson of the 2016 election at the highest level is all things are possible.”
Capuano has a fundraising edge. His campaign said he collected $680,000 in the past three months, bringing his cash total to $1.4 million. Pressley raised $370,000 during the same period, her campaign said.
One issue where there might be a sliver of daylight between the two is on the future of the federal government’s chief immigration enforcement agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.
Pressley has called for defunding the agency. Capuano said he voted against the creation of ICE, but thinks changing policies is more important.
The district — redrawn in 2011 to become Massachusetts’ first “minority-majority” district — includes a wide swath of Boston and about half of Cambridge as well as portions of neighboring Chelsea, Everett, Randolph, Somerville and Milton. It includes both Cambridge’s Kendall Square — experiencing a white hot development boom — and the neighborhood of Roxbury, the center of Boston’s traditionally black community. If elected, Pressley, who has served on the city council since 2010, would be the only black member of the state’s congressional delegation.
Clarrissa Croppers, co-owner the Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury, said gentrification, particularly the price of housing, is one of her top issues.
“I understand that they want to clean up the area, but I don’t want them to clean out the people who’ve been here for so long,” the 37-year-old said.
“I’m going to vote for (Pressley); she’s been a supporter of my business before she ran,” Croppers added. “I’ve not ever seen Mike come in here. You will see him closer to election time. They want to come out, shake hands and do photos, but where were you months and years before?”
Pressley’s campaign is also a challenge to an unwritten “wait your turn” rule in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, where incumbents can hang onto seats for decades with few if any serious competitors.
The last successful Democratic primary challenge in Massachusetts came in 2014, when Seth Moulton defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tierney in the state’s 6th Congressional District.
Pressley is aware she’s bucking a tide.
“My mother did not raise me to ask for permission to lead,” she said.