In an off-year city council race where city-wide turnout will likely be below 20 percent of registered voters, at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is banking on raising turnout in some of the city’s lowest-voting communities.
Blacks, Latinos and progressive whites often sit out municipal elections when there’s no mayoral campaign. Pressley is asking her supporters to reach out to those disaffected voters most political strategists write off.
“We didn’t subscribe to conventional wisdom two years ago and we’re not going to subscribe to it now,” Pressley says, rolling out the plan at a Young Professionals fundraiser she held last week. “They would have you believe that communities of color are not reliable votes, that progressives are not going to turn out. I know better.”
Pressley is locked in a nail-biter contest for one of four at-large seats on the council. Her opponents in the race include fellow incumbents Felix Arroyo, John Connolly and Stephen Murphy.
With a challenge from former top vote-getting councilor Michael Flaherty threatening to oust one of the four incumbents, conventional wisdom holds that first-term councilors Pressley and Arroyo are most vulnerable.
Pressley’s strategy for reaching the black, Latino and progressive white voters who vote heavily for candidates of color is what her campaign is calling to 100 club. Her campaign staff is reaching out to supporters and asking each of them to take responsibility for getting voter pledges from ten people.
At the fundraiser, campaign manager Jessica Taubner handed out packets with signup sheets, stickers campaign literature and talking points for volunteers.
“We’re going to do everything we can to prove that when you show up and ask people to participate and give them a great candidate, people do participate,” Taubner told the audience of more than 50 young professionals.
Pressley has spent much of her adult life campaigning for other people. She worked on staff for former Congressman Joseph Kennedy and Sen. John Kerry. Since winning election in 2009, she has carved out her own niche in Boston politics.
“She’s the voice for a demographic that goes unnoticed,” says Pressley supporter and political commentator Marvin Venay. “She’s the epitome of a councilor for the people and she has relentlessly fought the fight from day one.”
Pressley’s unconventional campaign strategy is emblematic of her first term in office. Working in a body that is more preoccupied with constituent services than public policy, Pressley has championed a range of social issues including sexual assaults on college campuses, teen pregnancy prevention, sex education in Boston Public Schools and services for survivors of violence.
“I don’t allow anyone to define for me what this position is,” Pressley says. “I know there are critics who would argue that my agenda is too broad. They would challenge whether it’s realistic to work on these issues at the city level. I believe the issues of teen pregnancy [and] survivors of violence are germane to city government.”
As evidence, Pressley points to the packed hearings she held on the school department’s policies toward pregnant and parenting teens. Pregnancy is the leading cause for girls to drop out of school.
“I learned that the school department had not updated its pregnant and parenting teens policies since 1989,” Pressley says.
Her office produced a report with recommendations for policy changes ranging from not punishing mothers for coming to school late when their daycare opens late, to offering on-line classes and tutoring support for mothers at home with their babies.
“I believe we have a moral imperative to help that young mother and her child,” Pressley says. “The life and success of the child is linked to the success of the mother. If they don’t complete their education, at best they’ll make $14,000 annually.
Pressley, who heads the council’s newly-formed Women and Healthy Communities Committee, often cites her own upbringing as the child of a single mother as the motivating force for her focus on social change. The death of her mother, who succumbed to cancer last month, seems to have given Pressley even more of an imperative to fight for social justice.
“I was an only child,” Pressley says. “My mother raised me by herself.”
Each of the four at-large councilors has an issue area in which they specialize. Arroyo focuses on youth issues. Connolly on education. Murphy is known for his thorough knowledge of the city’s budget. Pressley’s focus on women, children and family issues has helped her stand out on the council.
“She’s been an advocate for all women who live in Boston and has done a particularly good job,” says Prithi Rao, executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Caucus.
Other issues she has championed include a requirement that all construction projects governed by the Boston Residents Jobs Policy be listed on the Boston Redevelopment Authority website along with a detailed accounting of how many Boston residents, people of color and women are working on the site.
Pressley’s career in politics has taken her from the world of national and international policy to the nuts and bolts of city departments. Success for her is not only changing policy, but also packing a hearing room full of affected constituents who understand they have the power to effect change.
“I want people to understand the impact of municipal government,” she says. “This is the form of government closest to the community.”
With plans for an aggressive, grassroots, get-out-the-vote effort, Pressley will have to bring the gospel of civic engagement to the people.
“It’s going to take a grassroots effort,” Venay says. “It’s going to take a lot of knocking on doors. She’s going to have to be out there, hitting the pavement, telling her story.”