#WomenToWatch is a series by RepresentWomen that documents rising women leaders and their stories.
Ayanna Pressley’s campaign message is simple: “Change Can't Wait." Pressley, a 44-year old African American woman, was the first black female Boston City Council member. She is running in the Massachusetts Democratic primaries on September 4th to represent the state’s 7th Congressional District. She will be up against incumbent Representative Mike Capuano, who has held the seat for the past 20 years.
Comparisons have been drawn between Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primaries for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Crowley was in the House for almost 20 years, and was seen as the establishment candidate. But unlike Crowley, Capuano is a vocal supporter of progressive policies and is seen as a staunch liberal. And in contrast to Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley has a wealth of political experience.
Pressley was elected to the 13-member Boston City Council in 2011. In its 100-year history, the Council had never had a woman of color as a member. She previously worked for John Kerry and other democratic leaders.
While acknowledging that there are few policy differences between her and Capuano, Pressley contends that she will lead differently, and points to her unique perspective as a woman of color who was raised by a single mother. She has been outspoken about being a sexual assault survivor and about her family members’ experiences in the criminal justice system. She has said that she is running to empower those who have been historically disenfranchised and underrepresented in government. In an interview with USNews, she remarked, "The fresh faces and new voices is not just about me, as a candidate. It's not just about who's on the ballot. It's about the people I'm lifting up."
Pressley is running in her state’s only majority-minority district, but the overall voting population skews older and white. Her challenge is to change the typical electoral composition of her district. Although she won the Rising Star Award from Emily’s List in 2015, she has not received their backing, and the Congressional Black Caucus is supporting Capuano.
Besides her remarkable personal story and ambitious career, Pressley stands out because she is running a campaign against an incumbent. Unfortunately, this is all too rare in our current electoral system. Before Representative Seth Moulton defeated nine-term incumbent John Tierney in 2014, no Congressional representative from Massachusetts had been ousted in 22 years. With single-member districts in a plurality electoral system, incumbents are heavily favored to win, and competition within parties is discouraged. System reforms such as ranked choice voting could help ameliorate these long-standing problems, and enable more people like Pressley to challenge decades-long incumbents and bring fresh ideas and true representation to Congress.