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Capuano, Pressley Face Off in Nationally Watched Primary

The United States Capitol houses both chambers of Congress.

For the first time in roughly two decades, voters in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville will vote in a highly contested Democratic primary — one that has received growing national attention. 

Ayanna S. Pressley, a progressive and a familiar face in Boston politics for the last decade, will take on congressman Michael E. Capuano, a 20-year incumbent who possesses liberal bona fides of his own on Tuesday.

Capuano, 66, served as mayor of Somerville before winning a crowded Democratic primary in 1998 to represent Massachusetts’s 8th U.S. congressional district (since redistricted to become the 7th district), which cuts a wide swath across Boston and its suburbs. Since that time, he has never faced a serious challenge, comfortably winning the majority of the vote in all nine of his re-election bids.

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Pressley, 44, the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, has won endorsements from local newspapers in addition to multiple state officials, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey ’92. 

The winner of the primary will almost certainly win the general election in November, as no Republicans filed to run for the seat.

Pressley’s quest to take on the 10-term congressman has garnered national media attention for its parallels to a recent New York congressional primary, in which progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset long-term representative and Democratic Party mainstay Joseph Crowley. 

When Pressley visited Harvard Medical School — which lies in the 7th district — last month, her introducer referenced Ocasio-Cortez almost immediately. The two women exchanged endorsements and have appeared together at campaign events.

After Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory, many political pundits have looked toward the Massachusetts race as a potential sequel — and another sign of the growing rift in the Democratic party between establishment figures and young activists eager to upend the status quo. National political reporters have descended on Boston and Somerville in recent days to cover what many are billing as a bellwether.

In interviews with district residents on the streets of Allston and on Harvard Business School’s campus Monday evening, many were oblivious to the upcoming election. Two said they had not yet made up their minds about which candidate to support, and multiple others said they didn’t plan to vote at all.

The Harvard College Democrats are not planning any official get-out-the-vote efforts in the district, according to Devontae A. Freeland ’19, the group’s president.

John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics, wrote in an email that the race has centered more around identity than ideology.

“Congressman Capuano has run a hard-fought campaign strongly defending his progressive credentials in debates, through surrogates and paid media,” he wrote. “If Pressley wins, it will be less about ideology, and more about voters choosing a representative who better reflects the demographics (younger, majority-minority) of the district.”

Though the parallels between the congressional races in New York and Massachusetts are apparent — both Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez are young women of color challenging entrenched white male incumbents — the dynamics in the races are in many ways markedly different.

For one, the ideological gap between Capuano and Pressley is much narrower than that between Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley in New York — a fact Pressley has acknowledged. Both Capuano and Pressley support single-payer health care, propose cuts to military spending, and strongly oppose President Donald Trump.  

In addition, while Ocasio-Cortez ran as a consummate outsider, Pressley has held elected office for close to a decade.

Freeland, president of the Harvard College Democrats, argued that the comparisons between the two races are misguided.

“I think that these folks are missing a particular context of this district in Massachusetts and trying to conflate it with other districts in the country,” he said. “Boston is a community that is distinct from New York and has its own motivations.”

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald recently endorsed Pressley, citing her potential to shape the conversation in Washington in a way that an entrenched incumbent such as Capuano could not.

“Ayanna Pressley is such a powerful persona that her election would change the dynamic of the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation,” the Herald wrote. “She’d be an instant leader.”

Rather than attacking Capuano’s voting record on the campaign trail, Pressley has focused on her background growing up in a single-family home and as a survivor of sexual assault, as well as her advocacy on behalf of low-income families since she joined the Council in 2010.

Her signature campaign phrase is “The people closest to the pain should be closest to power.” 

In a recent online campaign advertisement, Pressley highlighted the deep economic disparities between the first and last stops of the Number 1 bus, which runs from Harvard Square to Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood where the child poverty rate hovers near 50 percent.

“You can learn everything you need to know about the 7th congressional district by riding the Number 1 bus from Cambridge to Roxbury,” she said. “In a matter of blocks, you will see a stark visual contrast of life experiences, household median income, and quite literally, life expectancy.”

Government Professor Daniel Carpenter called Pressley “impressive” in an email, saying she has a “real shot” at edging out Capuano largely because she is well-known in the district and possesses significant “political knowledge” and “organization.”

Though the race has generated quite a bit of buzz, there has been scant polling of the race.  Recent polls conducted in July have shown Capuano with a lead in the high single-digits or low double-digits.

“Races like this are notoriously difficult to predict because they are primaries and have low turnout,” Carpenter wrote. “The fact that the primary occurs during ‘back to school’ week, and right after Labor Day, may further depress turnout, though I could also see a scenario where young voters turn out at higher rates than usual, and probably for Pressley.”

If Pressley wins, she would be the first African American to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at jonah.berger@thecrimson.com. 

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