Ayanna Pressley won a historic victory Tuesday night, when she easily defeated a 10-term incumbent for the Democratic nomination in a Boston-area congressional district. A now all-but-certain November victory will send her to Washington as the first African American to represent Massachusetts in the US House of Representatives. She will carry forward an epic tradition of service to communities that sent a young John Kennedy to Congress and later elected House speaker Tip O’Neill.
By any measure, these are notable accomplishments.
Yet what makes Pressley’s 59-41 victory so truly historic has as much to do with the future direction of the national Democratic Party—and perhaps of American politics—as it does with the local politics of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and the rest of the seventh district in Massachusetts. Like New York Congressman Joe Crowley, who was defeated in June by 28-year-old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Congressman Mike Capuano, who Pressley upset Tuesday night with support from Ocasio-Cortez, was an entrenched Democratic representative with a credible voting record. Capuano was a good deal more progressive than Crowley, and more courageous on issues of consequence. But the 66-year-old Capuano still projected the image of a reasonably predictable DC Democrat.
In this volatile time, voters in Massachusetts—and in New York and in a lot of other places across the country—have been turning to candidates who are less predictable. Frustrated with old approaches that don’t seem to be working against increasingly reactionary Republicans, these voters are signaling a desire for a bolder politics that proposes a fierce fight against economic, social, and racial injustice.
Ayanna Pressley ran as an agent of change, not just in the partisan competition between Democrats and Republicans, but in the battle to define a new direction for the Democratic Party. She welcomed endorsements from groups that seek to move the party toward more boldly progressive stances on the issues and toward clearer alliances with grassroots movements, including Justice Democrats, Progressive Massachusetts and Democracy for America. Late Tuesday evening, DFA chair Jim Dean declared that: “Ayanna Pressley’s remarkable victory tonight is testament to the strength of the grassroots movement she built, and an important reflection of the generational, multiracial inclusive populist transformation that’s happening in the Democratic Party right now all across the country.”