Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley goes to Washington

Incoming Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley stands at the Capitol. Pressley staff photo

Boston City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley is bouncing between Washington and Dorchester these days, shuttling from freshman orientation week as a congresswoman-elect back to her still-busy schedule on the council.

Briefly back in Boston early this week, Pressley talked with the Reporter about her first week in the nation’s capital, the upcoming sprint for the best offices, what she hopes the party is learning from the wave of new voices elevated in the midterms, and where she is leaning on leadership votes.

Excerpts from that conversation follow:

GETTING ORIENTED

Pressley’s election to Congress has put her in a cohort of a historically diverse freshman class whose members traditionally go through three weeks of orientation before they are sworn in on Jan. 3.

“Well, it's no different than any other orientation. You're meeting your new peers and getting acclimated logistically and substantively. Overall I would say it was exhausting, exhilarating, exciting, humbling. It really all starts to set in and to feel very real… the final week of orientation will be at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So I feel a certain responsibility, in that this is my district, to do something special for my class, and I'm in talks with Harvard and some other community partners about what that could look like and what that would mean.”

ON THE DOCKET

Democrats have a sheaf of policy goals they are eager to start moving on in the House. Pressley started her career in the City Council nine years ago with a hearing on the families of gun violence victims. She plans her last hearing on the council to be a “Part 2” of that session. And then in Congress, gun violence is on her agenda, as is supporting the Green New Deal intended to address climate change and push for increased use of renewable energy resources.

“I don't limit the bandwidth of my reach or what I will lead on to the committees that I'll be appointed to. I ran because the Massachusetts 7th is the most diverse and unequal district across every outcome. In that there are a lot of systemic inequalities and disparities to dig out from - from public health to transit, to public education, to housing, to environmental justice issues - I intend to lead on those issues of consequence to the Massachusetts 7th in the values-based caucuses that I'll be a part of, like the Progressive Caucus, in the issues based caucuses like the Bike Caucus that I plan to join, in the Congressional Black Caucus, which is the biggest caucus of the House. So some of the committees that I've prioritized are financial services. Housing is a subcommittee of that, clearly that needs to be a priority. Education, Labor...

“I'm looking at everything from standards of reporting and investigative reads of campus sexual assault, to trauma-informed schools, to staffing structures and a teaching workforce that is reflective of the student body, to colleges being communities in school that provide childcare and food pantries and really meet the needs of today's students. And on workforce, you know, looking at that in a robust way as well...

“This is of course one of the main reasons I ran because it disturbed me deeply that when the Democrats were in the majority and many were approached, including our own delegation, about pushing for a gun control bill, there was resistance. And the response was that, well, there is no appetite for it. And, you know, we're walking in emboldened, we're the only checks and balance. We are in a Democratic majority and I think we need to be bold and we need to be aspirational and we need to be consistent with what our closing arguments were to the American people and come out the gates strong.”

A PLACE IN THE PARTY

In Boston, Pressley was one of several women of color who unseated incumbents or came out on top of races in which they were not the establishment favorites. Incoming state Reps. Nika Elugardo and Liza Miranda, along with incoming Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, talked recently on WGBH about the response from other Democrats on their rise to office. Elugardo called the party “racist.”

“To be clear, that's the national conversation. There are systemic barriers and cultural challenges within the state Democratic Party and within the national party. And again, there are hard and real conversations that need to be had post-2018 around the lessons learned. For example, all of our races expanded the electorate and it was not by default because we were more diverse candidates that people just decided to vote for us. That was based on financial investments that we made, leadership choices and decisions that we made, like rejecting corporate PAC money, like investing in ethnic and specialty media, in our grassroots organizing.

“I feel very strongly that we have a responsibility for all of the new people that we have engaged in the process, or those who have been reengaged, that it is critical to the future of this party and our democracy, that we are doing everything possible to keep those folks engaged and connected and that's so much bigger than any one election cycle or any one candidate.”

FROM THE TOP

With the Democrats set to take control of the House come January, leadership is the topic du jour and Nancy Pelosi’s push to once again be speaker of the House has divided the Massachusetts delegation. Pressley's fellow new representative, Lori Trahan, said this week that she plans to support Pelosi, as does Rep. Richard Neal, poised to become Ways and Means chairman; Rep. Katherine Clark said she has no issue with Pelosi in the post; and Rep. Seth Moulton is among those leading the anti-Pelosi charge.

“Well, I think we're defining everything for the party leadership as one position and I don't. I define it, I'm thinking about this as a slate. I'm supporting Katherine Clark for vice-chair of our Democratic caucus. I'm so grateful for the work that she's done in the Red to Blue Campaign and I'm very proud to support her leadership as a member of the Massachusetts delegation, which is experiencing its own history. Lori's seat is the first one that was passed down from one woman to another, and this is a historic number of women serving in our delegation. We're at an all time high with four - Senator Warren, Katherine Clark, myself and Lori Trahan. So there are many leadership positions that I'm having to make decisions about and many that I suspect the general public is not even aware of. There are our caucuses and elections within the DCCC and the Democratic Policy Committee and a whip and a assistant whip...

“So there are many, many positions. And leader Pelosi is one part of that. And as I've maintained both in public and in private, I have tremendous respect for the role that she played in getting the Affordable Care Act passed, the role that she has played in this last election cycle for many candidates, I know she was traversing the country extending a lot of sweat equity and raising a lot of money, and I do think that many of the attacks against her have been sexist, to be candid. So I have tremendous respect for her. What I'm focused on as I'm making my final deliberations is how to best position me to represent the needs of this district.”

STAFFING UP

Pressley now has two city residences to juggle, figuring out who on her council staff is staying on the home team in Boston and who is traveling to chart new territory in Washington.

“I'm very fortunate that I already have a talented and dedicated city council team, all of whom will be staying on and will be staying in the district for now, with the exception of one person. I'm in final interviews right now around a legislative director, a scheduler, and communications. I plan on being slow to hire. That is the advice, the recommendation of members of my own delegation and other colleagues, because you need time to sort of settle in and better understand how you want to run your office, what your needs are, what the demand is. But what will not change is that I will prioritize constituent services and the district.”

ON THE MOVE

Pressley is gearing up for the Office Olympics, where the new representatives set out to find their offices on Capitol Hill.

“They give you a list of all the offices where there'll be turnover, where people are moving up because they're more senior now or that are open because people retired or weren't re-elected. You sort of keep a running list of all those offices, which are spread out all over the place from Cannon to Rayburn to Longworth. So you have to go on a walking tour, check those offices out. Then you develop your ranking, or what's your first choice? Your second, your third, and then there's lottery day when you pick a random number and based on that number, you have to go and run to the office that was your first choice, and if that has already been claimed, then you have to get to your office that was your second choice and if that is already been claimed and you have to get to the office, that is your third choice. … It sounds like ‘Survivor.’ Well, maybe not ‘Survivor.’ It'd be the ‘Amazing Race,’ which, I actually never thought I would do well on that show. Again, bad knees.”

THE HOME FRONT

A long-time resident of Dorchester with her husband and stepdaughter, Pressley is still figuring out her schedule in DC, where, she says, she’ll have a “crash pad” at least.

“I will be coming home, not only to spend time with my family, who I will be missing a terribly, but to be in community and to be present throughout the district, both to report on what I'm working on, but to get direction and insight and counsel and hear what's top of mind for people in the district. And then, it is Jan. 3, and we will have people make the trek to Washington. We don't expect many to go because I'm getting sworn in with 434 other people and I only get two tickets, right? But if they do, they'll have the opportunity to watch the swearing-in on a closed circuit television, to see my office and then we will have a reception somewhere in close proximity for people that do make the trip up. Then, seven to ten days later, I'll be doing a re-enactment, if you will, in a community celebration in the district.

“Just stay tuned, and there may be some very special guests joining us. And that is all I'm going to say about that.”

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