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Race, Gender And Age In Democratic Party Politics


There is a fundamental question about the future of the Democratic Party that's currently playing out in Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District. Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, is challenging Congressman Mike Capuano, a white male 10-term incumbent. The two have similar progressive policies, but the matchup is sparking another debate about how much race, gender and age ought to matter in Democratic Party politics. NPR's Asma Khalid reports from Boston.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Ayanna Pressley's mantra is change can't wait. And that is the message the 44-year-old delivers on campaign stops like this one at a Dominican restaurant. She's come to talk specifically to women and girls of color.

AYANNA PRESSLEY: Now, listen. I'm not saying vote for me because I'm a black woman, but I won't pretend that representation doesn't matter. It matters.

KHALID: Pressley rattles off facts, telling the crowd this is the most diverse district in the state but also the most unequal.

PRESSLEY: This district is 57 percent people of color and almost 40 percent single female-headed households. The district has changed.

MIKE CAPUANO: All districts change. This district - Greater Boston is a very transient neighborhood. It's always changing.

KHALID: That is Congressman Mike Capuano, the man who has held this job for 20 years and never faced a serious challenge until now. It's hard not to see similarities between this race and the recent Democratic upset in New York with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But this is a fundamentally different primary. Pressley is not an outsider. She worked as a congressional aide for 16 years and was named a Rising Star by EMILY's List. And Capuano is a known progressive, but he has said he's put off by identity politics. Here's what he told NPR member station WBUR in February.


CAPUANO: Look, I cannot be a woman of color. I just don't think there are that many people who will vote for me because I'm a white male or vote against me because I'm a white male.

KHALID: Capuano doesn't understand why Pressley is challenging him when the real foe is Donald Trump. And Pressley says she's tired of people acting like it's traitorous to challenge a fellow Democrat. Sure, she admits, there is no difference in how they would vote down in D.C., but that's not the issue.

PRESSLEY: This was the seat held by John F. Kennedy, so having a progressive voting record is a baseline. That is not necessarily a Profile in Courage.

KHALID: Pressley says it's not just about how they'll vote on existing legislation but about legislation they would write and champion. She points to her record on gun violence and the wage gap. Capuano points to his seniority and record of delivering money for infrastructure projects around Boston.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, everybody. There's Mike Capuano, your congressman.

KHALID: The other day, Capuano visited a senior center in his hometown that he helped get off the ground. He talked about Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and the danger posed by Republicans.

CAPUANO: There's a lot of ways to kill something. One way is to bankrupt it. So even if they don't repeal it - say we're going to get rid of Obamacare, we're going to get rid of Medicare - they can still bankrupt it.

KHALID: This is how Capuano campaigns. He doesn't talk a lot about his opponent.

CAPUANO: I hear people who want me to fight against Donald Trump. I hear people who talk to me about issues. And the issues I hear mostly are, first of all, Donald Trump on pretty much everything.

KHALID: Capuano has the money and the loyalty of a popular incumbent plus the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, the mayor of Boston and the former governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. But it is the year of the woman. And Doug Rubin, a Democratic consultant in Boston, says it's plausible voters might think Capuano's done a good job as a congressman and yet still want a change.

DOUG RUBIN: There is a real kind of organization around women voters who want to send a message to Trump. And Ayanna is in a perfect position to take advantage of that.

KHALID: Regardless of who wins, Rubin says a family fight every so often is healthy. It gets people to the polls, and that may be just what Democrats need, not just here in Massachusetts but all over the country.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.