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One of the Strongest Progressives in Congress Is Facing a Primary Challenger Invoking Identity and Change. Will She Unseat Him?

In a recent debate aired on Radio Boston, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley delivered an unusual mantra for her bid to unseat incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano, declaring that she would vote in a nearly identical way as her opponent. “We will vote the same way, but lead differently,” she said.

Nationwide, left-wing Democrats are garnering tons of attention — and wins, to boot. In a New York Democratic congressional primary, socialist candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored a stunning upset against Rep. Joe Crowley, a long-established, business-friendly lawmaker, in leadership. In Nebraska, community activist Kara Eastman shocked observers by beating former Rep. Brad Ashford, a “Blue Dog” Democrat who sided with Republicans on key votes. And, last week in Connecticut, Jahana Hayes beat a business-backed candidate for the Democratic nomination in a House race.

A different type of race is taking shape in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District, a seat comprised of downtown Boston and surrounding suburbs. Though media outlets across the country have labeled the Pressley challenge in Massachusetts as the “next Ocasio-Cortez,” the race differs from other progressive challenges to entrenched Democrats: Pressley’s policy positions are frequently indistinguishable from her opponent.

In a race between two similarly positioned politicians, how important is identity?

The challenge to Capuano raises a slew of political questions in the Trump era: Under what circumstances does a member of Congress deserve re-election? In a race between two similarly positioned politicians, how important is identity? How important is a progressive track record?

There are some similarities between Ocasio-Cortez’s and Pressley’s bids: Pressley is black, meaning that, like Ocasio-Cortez, she is a women of color running to unseat a white man in a majority non-white district. But, unlike Ocasio-Cortez and Eastman, both of whom ran with sparse political resources — few campaign dollars and virtually no major establishment endorsements — Pressley is backed by major donors and powerful figures within the Democratic Party’s elite. According to Politico, Pressley, a former aide to then-Sen. John Kerry, was urged by the “donor class” to make her run. Federal Election Commission reports show she has raised over $1 million, more than double the amount raised by Ocasio-Cortez and more than triple the amount raised by Eastman before election day.

While Ocasio-Cortez and Eastman won by sharply criticizing the moderate voting records of their primary opponents, Pressley has demurred repeatedly when asked to point to major policy areas in which she disagrees with her opponent.

Pressley has garnered some support from establishment forces: Her campaign contributors include Boston-area megadonor Barbara Lee; Minyon Moore, a so-called Democratic National Committee superdelegate and principal of the corporate lobbying firm Dewey Square group; and Super PAC strategist Guy Cecil. She also appears to be gaining momentum among progressives. She has been endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and Democracy for America. Meanwhile, progressive groups are seizing upon the Pressley campaign as an opportunity for change.

“Congressman Mike Capuano has been a fine, progressive member of Congress, but having an experienced progressive like Ayanna Pressley on the ballot is an unmissable opportunity for Massachusetts to both ensure a leading woman of color represents its only majority-minority district and add the voice of just one person of color to New England’s currently all-white congressional delegation,” said Jim Dean, chair for Democracy for America, in a statement. Jonathan Cohn, co-chair of Progressive Massachusetts, explained that his group also endorsed Pressley over Capuano because of the “need for more diverse representation in Congress and the need for more activist leadership from Democrats in Congress.”

Justice Democrats, the new advocacy PAC spearheading progressive primary challenges across the country, endorsed Pressley over Capuano. Alexandra Rojas, a spokesperson for the group, said the group “would like to see fresh leadership, especially from women and people of color, in one of the few majority-minority districts in the country represented by a white man.”

In this Saturday, June 23, 2018, photo, U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass., speaks after touring the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. Capuano was part of a Congressional delegation visiting sites along the U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass., speaks after touring the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 23, 2018.

Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

Capuano suggested in a one debate that his identity was less important than his track record of working on behalf of a diverse community. “There is a majority of no one in this district,” said Capuano. “No race, no ethnicity, no religion, nothing. So anybody who sits in this seat has to be able to work with people that don’t look like them, people that don’t think like them, people that don’t worship like them — and has to be able to bring people together.”

Capuano, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, blazed an unusual path on Capitol Hill. He has championed “Medicare for All” for over a decade, helped establish the influential Office of Congressional Ethics, and, as Congress has increasingly abandoned its corporate oversight responsibilities, has made a name for himself dressing down the chief executives of big banks, airlines, and other industries for engaging in fraud and abuse.

“Taking down Capuano? That would be terrible. He’s a progressive champion.”

For some activists on the left who have supported Capuano’s policy stances, the prospect of challenging the progressive stalwart is a misguided venture. Robert Naiman, policy director of the progressive think tank Just Foreign Policy, said he has cheered on the wave of progressive insurgent candidates, but was surprised to see Capuano — who is known for his progressive foreign policy stances — facing a challenge. Naiman, a watchdog on foreign intervention, rattled off a list of foreign policy stances Capuano has staked, agitating for peace even against his own party, from leading the opposition to the war in Yemen to maintaining a lonely battle against President Barack Obama’s war in Libya.

“Taking down Capuano? That would be terrible,” Naiman said. “He’s a progressive champion.”

Corporate PAC Money

In the few areas in which Pressley says she presents an alternative to Capuano, the contrast is nonetheless muddled. Pressley said she pledged to decline corporate PAC money, while Capuano has not. That may be true in the 2018 Democratic congressional primary, but Pressley fundraised from corporate, police, and lobbyist-run PACs while a member of the city council, ethics disclosures show, before taking the pledge this cycle. (Pressley’s campaign did not offer comment for this article.)

Records show that the Pressley Committee, the registered entity for Pressley’s municipal campaigns, received donations from several corporate lobbying PACs, including the Nelson Mullins Riley Scarborough and Nixon Peabody. Individuals from the powerful Massachusetts corporate lobbying firm Dewey Square Group have donated 18 times to Pressley’s campaigns.

The local campaign cash may yet become an issue in the House primary. The Boston Globe found that Pressley may have used local city council campaign funds to hire her current federal campaign staff, a potential violation of ethics rules.

For her part, Pressley argued two years ago that money in politics does not impact fundamental issues of economic inequality, claiming that campaign finance reform “does nothing to address” concerns around health care, jobs, and housing.

Abolish ICE

Another contrast the Pressley camp has drawn for attention — that she recently endorsed defunding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while Capuano has not — is also more complex than the talking point would have it. Capuano voted against the establishment of ICE in 2003, but has recently said that the agency should be reformed, not abolished. Instead, Capuano has said, efforts should be focused on changing immigration policy — an area where he shares virtually all of Pressley’s positions.

Audrey Coulter, a spokesperson for Capuano’s campaign, also pointed out that the representative “established one of the country’s first ‘sanctuary city’ policies in Somerville,” where he served as mayor in the 90s. Coulter pointed to recent steps by Capuano to travel to the border and sponsor legislation to reunite separated families.

“He’s a tireless progressive champion for working families, immigrants, communities of color, seniors, and kids, in the fights critical to protecting our most fundamental values,” Coulter said. “That’s what he does. That’s who he is.”

War and Peace

Another area where Capuano’s long national record stands in contrast to Pressley’s local profile is on foreign policy — particularly American wars abroad. Questionnaires sponsored by Massachusetts Peace Action, a grassroots pressure group focused on curbing the power of the Pentagon and ending military adventures overseas, provide one of the few windows into the candidates’ views in this area. But, in her responses, Pressley declined to take a position on whether she would “vote to terminate the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan” or whether she would support legislation to prohibit “stationing military forces [in Syria], and providing assistance and training to insurgents.”

Explaining her non-answers, Pressley wrote that she would seek to exhaust other diplomatic and nonmilitary options, but wanted to avoid closing the door on the possibility of supporting future military solutions to ending the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Capuano, in contrast, answered “yes” to both questions in the survey. He also noted that he introduced legislation to require congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria; was one of only 11 lawmakers to file a lawsuit against Obama for using military force in Libya without congressional approval; and has voted on several occasions to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

While local Massachusetts media has largely ignored foreign policy in its coverage of the primary race, the issue looms large among those who have served with Capuano.

“I have long looked to my Progressive Caucus colleague Mike for his leadership and principled advocacy on U.S. foreign policy,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Given the Trump administration’s constant warmongering, progressives in Congress need Mike Capuano’s unwavering moral courage, now more than ever.”

This week, after careful consideration of the two candidates, Massachusetts Peace Action decided to endorse Capuano.

“Pressley has said little about foreign policy in her campaign, often resorts to generalities, and has not responded to our invitations to be briefed by foreign policy experts or to hold a forum with her opponent on foreign policy,” said Cole Harrison, the executive director of the activist group. “Capuano, the incumbent, consistently votes to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, and to cut the military budget. Pressley hasn’t earned the confidence of the peace forces, and we are announcing our endorsement of Capuano for re-election.”

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Massachusetts Peace Action questionnaire also asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing on a growing movement to pressure Israel over its occupation of Palestinian lands through boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Known by its initials, BDS, the movement has drawn strong opposition from pro-Israel voices, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has worked to outlaw any form of BDS activism.

Pressley declined to take a position on an AIPAC-backed piece of legislation that would impose criminal and civil penalties on some of those involved in BDS activism. The candidate explained that she intends to support “courageous individuals and organizations, among both Israelis and Palestinians, committed to bringing peaceful coexistence to the region.” Capuano took a stand against the anti-BDS bill, explaining that although he is not personally in support of using BDS tactics to pressure Israel, he opposes the anti-BDS bill on “First Amendment grounds” and believes “others should be free to advocate” for the movement.

Pressley is being advised by Alex Goldstein, a former aide to then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Goldstein has described himself as a “Jewish Zionist who works every day to fight BDS” and sits on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, which has unsuccessfully argued in favor of passing anti-BDS legislation in Massachusetts.

Real Estate Development

While finding distinctions between the two candidates’ positions can be difficult, the candidates have been intensely questioned by local media about the issue of housing. In one of their debates, Capuano declined the opportunity to criticize luxury real estate developments in Boston, while Pressley flatly answered that there are too many luxury developments and not enough affordable housing, proposing a “rent relief” tax break for residents spending high proportions of income on housing.

On occasion, however, Pressley has voted on the city council to approve luxury real estate developments, recently voting to support the $1.3 billion luxury Winthrop Tower development, she said, because the builders pledged to include minority businesses. Following the vote in April, Pressley received $1,250 in campaign contributions from the developers of the project, records show.

Pressley Moving Left

Pressley’s case for her candidacy is based on a progressive policy program with a nod to her self-styling as a fresh voice for Washington. “This district and these times demand more than just an ally, they demand an advocate and a champion,” Pressley said in a statement announcing her campaign. “Making progress on longstanding challenges requires a different lens and a new approach.” She has touted support for debt-free college, “Medicare for All” health care, and a focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics.

Many of her progressive planks represent a shift left for the Boston City Council member. While “Medicare for All” has become associated with the budding progressive movement led by independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pressley endorsed his opponent — the more moderate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

Capuano, for his part, endorsed Clinton, too, but said it was on the ground of her electability, remarking that Sanders would make a “great president.”

Pressley, on the other hand, criticized Sanders’s policy ideas and vision for the country while campaigning for Clinton. As Sanders stumped for universal health care and tuition-free college, Pressley declared at a Clinton campaign press conference in Boston that “plans without price tags are simply pandering.” In a debate hosted by WCVB, Pressley said she only recently began supporting “Medicare for All” because “the world has changed.”

During the 2016 campaign, she also dismissed the effort to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a pivotal court case that opened the floodgates for corporate money into electoral politics. “I cannot think of one instance in my time as a Boston City Councillor when a constituent implored me to make repealing Citizens United a top priority,” she once wrote.

In the current campaign, Pressley has put the debates of 2016 behind her, focusing more on how she will bring “activist leadership” to Congress, a pledge she has repeated on the campaign trail.

But the leaders she has endorsed show a more establishment-friendly vision. During the forum hosted by Boston Radio, Pressley said she hoped to emulate lawmakers such as Rep. Seth Moulton, a centrist member of the business-friendly New Democrats Coalition.

Affordable Care Act

In a debate last week, Pressley raised some issue differences with Capuano. She blasted his vote for a so-called Blue Lives Matter bill and took him to task for disagreeing with the way former NFL player Colin Kaepernick staged his now-famous protest against police brutality.

While Pressley has struggled to answer how she would vote differently from Capuano in previous debates, she claimed last week that Capuano voted for an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that stymied women’s rights by putting restriction on abortion rights. Capuano, however, actually voted against the amendment but supported the ACA despite its eventual inclusion in the House bill in order to get the law passed. (The amendment did not make into the final version of the law, though Obama imposed the restrictions through an executive order.) Pressley responded by suggesting that she would have been willing to defeat the ACA over the issue.

“What I’m saying is that I will sit at the table, and compromise and work with anyone in the name of progress,” Pressley said. “But there are things that I’m unwilling to compromise and to negotiate on, and that is the rights of women, of immigrants, of workers, and the LGBTQIA community.”

Top photo: Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley chats before the city council meeting at Boston City Hall in Boston on Feb. 1, 2017.

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