BOSTON – Progressives are trying to pull off a second shocking upset in a Democratic primary in as many months — this time in Massachusetts, where liberal Rep. Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoInside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats Progressive mayor launches primary challenge to top Ways and Means Democrat Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm MORE, a 20-year veteran in Congress, is doing everything he can to avoid becoming another Rep. Joseph Crowley.
Crowley is the New York lawmaker who had ambitions to become Speaker one day — until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina and self-described democratic socialist, knocked him out in a New York primary that stunned the political world.
ADVERTISEMENT The defeat of the longtime incumbent has resonated in Capuano’s campaign, which is looking to avoid being caught similarly off guard in Massachusetts’s Sept. 4 primary.
Capuano has criss-crossed his deeply blue district here in the Boston area during the August recess, doing everything he can to tout his record and fend off Ayanna Pressley, who became the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council and is now seeking to set her sail to the progressive winds energizing the Democratic party.
But on the campaign trail, Capuano has argued that Pressley is not more liberal than him.
“I don’t have an argument for difference (with Pressley). That’s not my argument,” Capuano told The Hill on Tuesday during a community barbecue, nestled in the courtyard of one of the city’s affordable housing developments.
“My argument is very simple: This is what I’ve been doing. This is what I’ve brought home. This is what I’ve done in Washington. And this is what I can do for you in the future.”
But with little daylight between the pair of congressional candidates on liberal policy issues, Pressley, 44, has argued that electing her to Congress would better reflect the diverse district than electing Capuano, a 66-year-old white male.
That was a point of contention between Capuano, a fierce liberal who hasn’t faced a primary challenge during his nearly two decades in Congress, and Pressley, as both went head-to-head at a testy debate on Tuesday — the second in a trio of debates scheduled for this month.
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“You can’t have a government by and for the people if it’s not represented by all of the people,” Pressley said.
The pair of liberal candidates also clashed over who would be the most effective leader in Congress, in a debate that was less focused on policy differences.
“We would probably vote in a very similar manner,” Capuano told a packed crowd at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The votes will probably be the same,” he added, but “at the same time, it’s what you do with those votes.”
Capuano, who was also a mayor of Somerville, argued that his seniority and experience will better equip him to fight President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s agenda.
“It does take time to become effective,” said the feisty, no-nonsense Capuano, who sparred with the moderators at one point during the debate. “This particular race is about electing the person who can be most effective for this district. Because we do generally agree on most issues.”
But Pressley shot back that her vision for leadership – and willingness to challenge the Washington establishment – is more important than the number of years clocked on Capitol Hill.
“I’d never give short shrift to years of service,” said Pressley, who sounded confident and polished on stage. “But Democrats were in the majority, and we had seniority, and how did we leverage it? What did we do with it to specifically address these disparate outcomes in the 7th Congressional District?”
“I don’t define leadership singularly by years served — or even committee titles,” she added.
The candidates also touched on race and gender during the debate — two issues dominating progressive primary races all around the country, especially in the era of Trump and the “Me Too” movement.
Pressley said that being a woman of color was not the reason she decided to run for Congress, but acknowledged it’s an important factor since it “informs the issues that are spotlighted.”
“Race is a factor in everything,” Pressley said during the debate.
Capuano’s deeply diverse district is 49 percent white, 26 percent black, 21 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian.
And with anti-establishment fervor gripping the Democratic party, there is also a clamor for generational change on the left that could give Pressley an edge.
“There is a hunger for, and appetite for, fresh voices,” Pressley told The Hill after a meet-and-greet with seniors in East Boston.
One policy area where Capuano and Pressley differ is whether to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — a new rallying cry among the liberal base that has divided the Democratic party. Pressley supports completely abolishing the agency, while Capuano would rather reform ICE.
And Pressley has rejected corporate PAC money, though Capuano has not.
Still, many core pillars of their platforms — including supporting “Medicare for all” – are closely aligned. Both Capuano and Pressley agreed that the House should start impeachment proceedings against Trump.
And neither candidate would say whether they would back Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Pelosi: Georgia primary ‘disgrace’ could preview an election debacle in November MORE (D-Calif.) for Speaker if Democrats win back the House.
The similarities between Capuano and Pressley could pose a tough choice for voters in a district that hasn’t seen a competitive primary race in years.
“I will be in the voting booth biting my nails,” said Molly Lanzarotta, an undecided voter and member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, after the debate. “But I will vote.”
After the debate, Capuano stopped by an annual community event in Boston’s South End neighborhood where residents, police officers and local government officials gathered for a barbecue.
And the following day, Capuano canvassed doors and attended an ice cream social in his native Somerville with roughly a dozen high school students and young campaign interns — most of whom have had Capuano as their congressman their entire lives.
The latest poll from WBUR suggests Capuano’s efforts to fend off his primary opponent are working: He has maintained a hefty 13-point lead over Pressley.
And Capuano has also outraised Pressley. Between April and June, Capuano raised $681,000 and ended with $1.4 million cash on hand, while Pressley raised $367,000 and ended with just $347,000 cash on hand.
But as the Crowley loss showed, money doesn’t always translate into victory, and polling numbers can quickly shift in the last days of a campaign.
Capuano, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has been sure to highlight his efforts to deliver for the district and secure money for local transportation and housing projects — something not lost on the community.
During the neighborhood barbecue on Tuesday, the executive director of the affordable housing complex came up to Capuano and thanked him for helping to usher in federal dollars that were used to upgrade the kitchen units in the apartments a few years ago.
“I was very glad they remembered,” Capuano told The Hill.
“I don’t remind people,” he added, “but the fact she remembered was nice.”