“I knew we would be, essentially, alone.”
That’s what Ayanna Pressley, the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, told her supporters Tuesday night at the IBEW Local 126 in Dorchester.
“I knew we would find no favor with the Democratic establishment,” Pressley continued. “I knew that we would have to fight for every dollar, every volunteer, every door, every vote.”
Earlier in the evening, at 8pm, the polls closed for the contest between Pressley and 10-term incumbent Mike Capuano. National and local TV cameras stood ready and folding tables were cluttered with journalists; still, spreads of cupcakes and hors d’oeuvres remained uneaten in the mostly-empty hall. There were about as many reporters prowling, snapping photos, or typing away, as there were volunteers.
By 8:30pm, the room started to fill. One of Pressley’s media consultants remarked with a heightened seriousness, “It’s gonna be close,” anticipating a late night. Over the next hour, with results and supporters trickling in, the air in the room sparked with tension and, over time, a crowd began to gather; suddenly, Pressley’s campaign felt far from a lonely enterprise, but became itself a community.
The coverage on this congressional race often flattens a complex array of issues to make sense of Pressley’s win. As the New York Times wrote, Tuesday’s result represented a victory by the “insurgent left” over the “Democratic establishment.” In reporting the campaign in this way, the Times collapsed much of the nuanced difference between candidates into simple dichotomies like left vs. moderate and establishment insider vs. new blood.
But while Pressley did outflank Capuano to the left on a couple of policies—like the abolition of ICE—Capuano holds a decades-long, undeniable record of reliably progressive positions. Similarly, while not a Washington politician, Pressley is by no means new to public life; this time last year, she was an incumbent City Councilor pulling in more than 50,000 votes.
If this election wasn’t won on leftist politics or disgust with establishment insiders, then why and how did Pressley win? One answer might be the nominee’s ability to inspire volunteers.
Anthony Davis, Jr. a recent graduate from Maryland, traveled all the way to Boston to help out in the final stretch.
“This is the only majority-minority district in the entire state and it has someone who doesn’t understand their lives, and the experiences that they’re having and living representing them,” Davis said. He then recounted a conversation with an “older, mid-sixties couple” who were planning to vote Capuano as recently as Monday.
“So we proceed to have a 30-minute conversation… They wanted to go with tradition, they wanted to go with what made them feel comfortable, but I’m like, ‘Why not be on the side of history? Why not take a risk with someone who looks like you, who’s been through the things that you’ve dealt with, and who understands you?’”
What finally convinced the couple, according to Davis, had to do with both Pressley’s life experiences—“being a sexual assault survivor on a college campus, having a father being in the prison system”—and the campaign’s hustle. Davis said he asked the couple, “When is the last time Capuano has been to your door? Or sent a representative to your door? Or sent any staff to any community events in Dorchester? … And when’s the last time you saw Ayanna?”
Solomon Steen, a volunteer and Public Policy Director for the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, spoke about Pressley’s attention not just to geographic communities, but also communities of activists. Hearing Pressley speak at events like the Racial Justice Forum led him to believe that “she’s really listening to activists in a way that you usually don’t see politicians do because there’s no electoral dividend to spending time with these really niche individuals.”
Activist-turned-Chelsea-city-councilor Damali Vidot was particularly inspired by Pressley’s message and described communication style as key to the campaign: “Every time I heard her speak I was ready to kill turfs for her. And I have leg issues and I was ready to go!” Vidot lights up when comparing Pressley to typical politicians: “It’s not the regular, ‘oh-how-you-doin’ type vibe. It’s about being able to connect with people from all walks of life … it’s personal, it’s intimate.”
Besides individual volunteers, Pressley’s campaign was supported by interest groups like Indivisible Somerville, who were also drawn to her messaging. Morgan Simko, a leader in the group, said, “We want to have someone who is speaking on behalf of all the constituents. Not that Capuano hasn’t done that, but we strongly believe that Ayanna can do that even better.”
(Full disclosure: I voted for Pressley because, after meeting her on Mass Ave, I, too, was convinced by the importance of personal life experiences to her policy ideas, by her magnetic style of speaking, and, simply, by the fact that she showed up in Cambridge.)
Just after 9pm, giant screens showed Capuano conceding and the entire room—friends, supporters, and volunteers—erupted with emotion. The election was ultimately called much earlier in the night than anyone had expected.
I caught up with Davis again to ask how he felt.
“This is a crazy moment right now,” he told me. “I’ll be honest, as a person of color, I have so much pride right now because not only are we sending another person of color to the Congress, but we are sending the first woman of color to Congress from Massachusetts.”
Less than two and a half hours after the polls closed, people were trickling home. The speed with which the race had been called, and with which Capuano conceded, for Davis, gestured at bigger forces.
“For it to happen so quickly, completely shocked me,” he said. “Change cannot wait. Change cannot wait this time.”
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.