Don’t buy the narratives
In Boston, all politics are still local
By Rick Holmes
Aug. 17, 2018
Massachusetts’ 7th House District is small and packed with voters. It includes the fancy streets of the academic elite in Cambridge, the crowded triple-deckers of Somerville and a wide swath of some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.
The 7th is diverse in income as well. As Ayanna Pressley often notes, along the bus route from Cambridge to Roxbury, median income drops by $50,000 and life expectancy drops by 30 years.
It’s the district where John F. Kennedy launched his political career after coming home from World War II. After JFK moved from the House to the Senate, his seat was held by legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill, then by one of JFK’s nephews, Joe Kennedy II, then Michael Capuano, its current occupant.
The 7th is about as Democrat as a district can get, deep blue for those who like to color-code our politics. It’s also the site of the next primary battle where – to hear some tell it -- the future of the Democratic Party is on the line.
Mike Capuano, a 20-year incumbent, is being challenged by Ayanna Pressley in the Sept. 4 primary. Capuano, 66, is male, white and Old Guard. Pressley, 44, is the first African-American woman to serve on the Boston City Council. Some pundits haven’t been this excited about an insurgent challenge since socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took out Joe Crowley down in Brooklyn.
The race fits into the narratives commentators have been pushing about the Democrats: that there’s a civil war raging between the party regulars and the young insurgents; that Democrats are being pulled ever further left by internal squabbles. Also that all Democrats care about is impeaching Donald Trump.
Narratives are things political commentators come up with to keep from having to talk about real people and dry policy issues.
But narratives don’t win elections, candidates do. Pressley, who supported Hillary Clinton, is not exactly a Bernie Sanders socialist and concedes there likely aren’t any issues on which her vote would differ from Capuano’s. Capuano’s record is as liberal as the district, and there are few signs he’s ignored the folks back home or failed to take Pressley’s challenge seriously.
Pressley doesn’t badmouth her opponent. But her style and background – she grew up poor and has roots in community activism; Capuano is Somerville-raised, Ivy-educated and has a working-class demeanor – offer a contrast, as does her race and gender. Asked at a debate whether race is a factor in her candidacy, her response was “race is a factor in everything.”
Representation matters, Pressley argues. “These times require and demand something more than being an ally,” she says. Her passions and priorities reflect those of a new generation of Democrats, she says. First among these is economic inequality, which is as serious a problem in the 7th District as anywhere in the country.
Most of the popular narratives about Democrats apply more accurately to Republicans. It’s the Republicans who are caught in a civil war, with the Trump faction -- and before that, the tea party – dedicated to cleansing their party of RINOs. It’s the Republicans who have been embarrassed by the motley collection of other extremists vying for GOP nominations. It’s the Republicans who are obsessed with who in their party is sufficiently loyal to Trump.
The Democrats I’ve heard on the campaign trail talk mostly about health care and education, about raising wages and protecting retirement benefits. Democrats know that Trump will be on the minds of midterm voters whether they talk about him or not. They are focused on concrete proposals to help ordinary people.
One of the more underreported events of the Trump era is the surge of new candidates his election inspired, especially women and minorities, for local as well as national offices. That ambition needs an outlet and those voices demand to be heard. Where there’s an open seat, that leads to a traffic jam: No fewer than 10 Democrats are running for the Massachusetts 3rd District seat held by retiring Rep. Niki Tsongas. Where incumbents stand in the way, some challenges are inevitable.
Seniority works for incumbents. Capuano keeps reminding voters of the goodies he’s been able to deliver thanks to his insider status. But a fresh face appeals to newly-engaged voters. And the call for a new generation of leaders has been working at least since JFK used it to propel his own ambitions.
Massachusetts’ September primaries, scheduled to bolster incumbents, are always low-turnout affairs. Narratives don’t drive occasional voters to the polls, organization does. So don’t look for national messages in the 7th District results. As Tip O’Neill of North Cambridge often said, “all politics is local.”