The story of Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s “upset” primary victory over 10-term Congressman Mike Capuano is a compelling one: young, progressive woman trounces Democratic establishment icon. The district wanted “change.” (At least, that’s how Capuano tells it.)
Pressley’s victory has drawn comparisons to democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary win over moderate Rep. Joe Crowley in New York. But the comparison misses the mark. And the narrative that this election’s results are a harbinger of a progressive ascendancy within the bluest state’s Democratic Party obscures the truth about the results of last week’s primary election.
The real story is this: Capuano was redistricted out of office.
Prior to 2013, Capuano represented Massachusetts’s 8th Congressional District. After the 2010 census, however, Massachusetts lost a seat in the House of Representatives. When former Republican Sen. Scott Brown wrote to the redistricting committee advocating the creation of a majority-minority district, Capuano fired back defensively that the 8th was already “majority-minority.”
Maybe so. But once the redistricting process was complete, Capuano was left in a new district, the current Massachusetts 7th, including the majority of Boston residents and almost half the city of Cambridge. In short, after 2013, Capuano’s district became less white. And for the first time, blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans made up a majority of voters.
Yet when Pressley — young, black and popular — decided to challenge Capuano in this year’s Democratic primary, most analysts predicted Capuano would win. They argued that the strength of the unions and the Democratic machine would carry the 20-year incumbent over the finish line. The polls seemed to back them up. Many gave Capuano a double-digit lead going into election day.
But the polls and the pundits were wrong. Voters turned out in more than double their 2016 numbers, and Pressley won decisively — by about 17 percentage points (58.6 percent to 41.4 percent).
Ironically, given that the district was created to increase the chances of sending a non-white representative to Washington, the post-election conventional wisdom is that Pressley’s victory had little to do with race. Her win has been attributed to everything from her progressive positions on issues to her promise to “lead differently” to her inspirational “style.”
But the Capuano-Pressley race was not about ideology. To be sure, Pressley represents the far left side of the ideological spectrum. But so does Capuano, who is known as one of the staunchest liberals in Congress and the most progressive member of an entirely Democratic state delegation.
Unlike Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Pressley did not run to the left of a more moderate incumbent. To the contrary, Pressley acknowledged that, on matters of policy, there is little daylight between her and Capuano. (Capuano’s Massachusetts colleagues, Democratic Reps. Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch, did face primary challenges from the left; both won their races easily.)
And while some have suggested that changing Somerville demographics (fewer working-class folks, more urban hipsters) may have moved the district left, a leftward lurch in voter sentiment hardly would have provided a basis for dumping the solidly progressive Capuano.
Several Democratic consultants have argued that voters chose Pressley because they wanted a political newcomer willing to stand up to President Trump with “fire in the belly.” But the former congressional staffer and longtime member of the Boston City Council is no political newcomer. And Capuano has been a vocal Trump critic — refusing to attend the inauguration in 2017, speaking at anti-Trump rallies outside the White House, and voting twice to begin impeachment proceedings against the president.
The elephant in the room that most analysts seem unwilling to discuss is, of course, race. Just as the ascendency of Irish and Italian politicians in Massachusetts and New York was driven primarily by ethnic loyalty, so is the victory of Ayanna Pressley attributable, in large measure, to the new demographics of the district.
This is not a normative statement. It’s merely a descriptive one. Some people see the election of a woman of color in a majority-minority district as a victory for representative democracy. Others view the creation of such a district as racially divisive. Regardless of one’s view, it is hard to deny that race was a major factor in this election.
To say so is not to undermine or disparage Pressley’s significant achievement. But an honest assessment of the election requires that we acknowledge the obvious: once Pressley entered the race, Capuano’s chances were slim.
My guess is, Capuano knew this all along. Although he fought mightily to retain his seat, the speed and gravitas with which he conceded the race indicated a lack of surprise at the outcome. On election night, Mike Capuano appeared as a man who long ago had come to terms with the fact that demography would determine his destiny.
Jennifer C. Braceras, a former commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, is a writer in Boston. She tweets @J_Braceras.