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Capuano's Challenge From Pressley Is Called A Fight For 'The Soul Of The Democratic Party'07:00
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U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and his Democratic challenger, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley (Robin Lubbock, Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and his Democratic challenger, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley (Robin Lubbock, Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The age of Trump, the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter are fueling new political activism on the left, and new divisions within the Democratic Party.

A case in point: the race for the Democratic nomination in the 7th Congressional District between incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and Boston City Councilor-At-Large Ayanna Pressley.

The race represents, among other things, a generational split: Capuano is 66, from Somerville, first elected to Congress 20 years ago. Pressley is 44, from Dorchester, first elected to the city council eight years ago — the first woman of color to serve on that body in its 108-year history.

Now she's hoping for a bigger stage.

At a recent campaign appearance at the Jook Sing Cafe in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, Pressley talked about the 7th district, which includes most of Boston, half of Cambridge and Milton, as well as Somerville, Randolph, Chelsea and Everett, and which once was represented by John F. Kennedy and Tip O'Neill.

"It is the most diverse district in this delegation,” Pressley said. “It is also the most unequal, and that's why I'm running: because I want to do something about it.”

There is indeed dramatic wealth disparity along racial lines in the district. According to a 2015 Boston Fed study, white households in the Boston metro area have a median net worth of about a quarter of a million dollars; black households have a net worth of just $8.

Pressley is the daughter of a single mother and a mostly absent father who was in and out of prison. She was also a victim of sexual abuse, and says all of these experiences give her "a new lens" to represent what is now the state's only majority-minority congressional district.

"I share my story because it is not one that I have monopoly on,” Pressley said in Chinatown, arguing that the 7th district is full of families with similar struggles. “What we see happening in Washington right now is a lack of empathy on steroids. So I do believe the confluence of my experiences uniquely equip[s] me to represent the needs of this entire district.”

Pressley is a skilled campaigner — the top vote-getter in three city council elections.

And her message appeals to people like Suzanne Lee, a community organizer and founder of the Chinese Progressive Association, who says Pressley, as a woman of color, would bring a valuable perspective to Congress, focusing on issues around race, crime and economic justice.

"We need that in Congress,” Lee said.

Capuano is also on the campaign trail these days. This past Saturday, which was Boston Pride Day, he was in the South End at a rally hosted by the Bay State Stonewall Democrats, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

“I am proud to stand with Mike Capuano,” declared Jeremy Comeau, co-chair of the Stonewall group. “It’s time that we have his back because he’s always had ours.”

Capuano casts himself as an advocate of progressive causes, ready to fight against the Trump agenda, and to stand up to what he fears is becoming a “new normal of hatred” across America.

"I think it’s a horrendously dangerous situation,” Capuano said. “That's one of the many reasons I want to go back to Washington. I actually like a good fight, and right now we need good fighters, and I think I'm pretty good at it."

Capuano has the advantage of incumbency, and the support of the Democratic establishment. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former Gov. Deval Patrick, the Congressional Black Caucus -- including the civil rights icon John Lewis — have all endorsed him. And just this week, so did the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

In the South End this past Saturday, Comeau praised Capuano as being unafraid to lead and, when necessary, to fight.

"After the Orlando [Pulse mass] shooting [Capuano] sat on the floor of Congress to say, ‘No more. We want gun regulations now,’ ” Comeau said. “Mike hasn't been silent about anything — he's been a progressive leader."

Capuano argues that if the Democrats retake the U.S. House in November, his seniority will give him significant clout. And he rejects Pressley's argument that she can better represent this increasingly diverse district.

"I was raised in this district as well," Capuano told WBUR. “This campaign should be about what you can do for this district and for this country. And in this particular race, I don't think anybody can match my long-term record.”

Capuano argues that he has been fighting for progressive causes for a long time -- including support of gay rights and marriage equality “before it was popular."

But this race isn't about policy differences. Capuano and Pressley are both progressive Democrats who agree on most, if not all, major issues. But the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury and a longtime community activist who's backing Pressley, says this contest has huge significance.

"I think this is absolutely about the soul of the Democratic Party,” Brown said.

Brown argues the economic disparities that are so evident in the district cry out for the change in perspective and priorities that Pressley represents.

"We see a party that hasn't changed, and that needs to find fresh ideas,” Brown said. “[Democrats] have to be asking themselves, 'What are we doing that's not touching the constituencies that we hope to touch, and how can we change in order to address that?' Because that's the only way to become stronger."

Brown’s argument is rejected by many Democratic Party regulars, including Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman, who supports Capuano and calls Pressley's challenge bad for Democrats.

"The last thing liberals need at this point is to have fights that are generated by personality and ego with zero issues," Frank said. “So that money and energy that we should be spending to take back the Congress is spent on internal fights."

But Pressley pushes back and says this is a family fight that Democrats need.

“We are losing youth and women and people of color from the Democratic Party," she said. “Why is that? Usually at the end of a family fight [families] are better and they are stronger for it, and I would like to think the same will be true here."

Pressley is part of a record surge of women — mostly Democrats — running for the House and Senate across the country.

For his part, Capuano says he understands the challenge -- and even welcomes it.

"I think that Donald Trump is getting a lot of people upset. I think rightfully so,” Capuano said. “And I think [Trump], the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter and the gun issue have engendered a lot of activism. I think that's a good thing."

This is the first time Capuano has had to work hard to defend his seat since he was elected 20 years ago. The challenge from Pressley also means, for the first time in a while, voters in the 7th district have a choice.

This segment aired on June 14, 2018.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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