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April 17, 2019

Dorchester Reporter: After 100 days, Pressley is continuing to ‘lean in’

Ayanna Pressley’s first 100 days as a US congresswoman have come fast and furious, with an already full to-do list expanding unpredictably across the national political landscape.

After she was swept into federal office in dramatic fashion just in time to slam up against a government shutdown, the former Boston city councillor filed her first bill as part of an effort to protect government contract workers who were not guaranteed back pay during the shutdown.

Four months later, employees were still at the top of her mind as she was the lead sponsor of legislation that seeks to combat workplace harassment and discrimination.

“Within the first seven days I introduced that bill,” Pressley said of the contract worker legislation as she reflected on her time in Washington in a conversation with the Reporter. “So, we have not paused at all. And what I’m finding is that we have so many tools available to us to effectuate change, and we also have to be nimble because I have to seize that opportunity when it presents itself. … I didn’t run for Congress saying, ‘When I get to Congress I’m going to introduce a back pay bill or that I’m going to introduce the amendment to lower the voting age.’ But I did that because there was an opportunity, and I think I have a mandate from his electorate to be bold.

“And sometimes that’s going to mean being disruptive in pursuit of progress to advance an issue, to advance legislation, to advance the debate. And if you can’t do it from the Massachusetts Seventh, you can’t do it from anywhere.”

Soon after her swearing in, Pressley put her 897-square-foot condo in the Carruth Building at Ashmont up for sale. The one-bedroom apartment was a tight squeeze for the new congresswoman, her husband, Conan Harris, her step-daughter Cora, and their cat, Sojourner Truth.

As a result, in addition to her pad in Washington, Pressley now calls her new neighborhood of Hyde Park home.

“I really have not been able to spend much time in my home,” she said of the adjustment. “When I’m in the district, I’m working. The entire Massachusetts Seventh is my home, to be clear, and Dorchester is always going to have a big portion of my heart and we remain very connected to the Dorchester community.”

Pressley’s district office – she calls it her “anchor office” – is in St. Mark’s village. Her team shares an office building at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and King Street with Midland Construction. With the office now open and the phone lines up, Pressley plans to have a community open house on April 27.

“You’re not rid of me,” she said of her former home neighborhood. “You’ll still be seeing me at Ashmont Grill and Tavolo and you’ll still be seeing me at Ripple. But I’m looking forward to getting to know our new neighbors when I can create some downtime.

“But right now I’m just focused on being accessible and visible in the district and making sure people know how hard myself and my team are working on behalf of the residents of the Seventh.”

Pressley has been busy. According to her office, she has co-sponsored 115 bills in the 100 days, seeking to address the separation of families at the border, climate change, homelessness, and the high costs of prescription drugs.

The back-pay bill is still moving along on Capitol Hill, she said. She co-sponsored the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act filed by her fellow Massachusetts Rep., Katherine Clark, last week. It seeks to strengthen protections for workers against harassment.

One consistent thread in Pressley’s 2018 campaign and her legislative work to date is her highlighting of the insidious effects of trauma in marginalized communities.

So far she has submitted nearly 200 requests to fund critical programs, her office said, including School Based Health Centers, Head Start and affordable child care programs, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, CDC research on gun violence, modernized reentry programming for formerly incarcerated women, biomedical research funding to support hospitals, colleges and universities across the district, and requests arising from community feedback.

Some of Pressley’s other co-sponsored bills look to develop reparations proposals and establish a Medicare for All national health system. She also proposed lowering the minimum voting age to 16.

Although the latter failed to make the overall US House bill that focused on voter access, election integrity, election security, political spending, and elections ethics, Pressley notes that her push for the lowered voting age has been informed in part by the residents in her district where a conversation has been happening in several municipalities about allowing the voting age to drop via a renewed push for legislation on Beacon Hill.

“They deserve to be eligible,” Pressley said. “It’s not a mandate for them to go; it’s not a mandate at the age of 18 and up that you go, but for the most informed, educated, politically engaged 16- and 17-year olds who are leading on gun violence prevention, who are leading on climate change, who care about student debt, who care about gentrification, homelessness, who care about the solvency of Social Security, I’m not going to tell the young people that are at the forefront of change in the Massachusetts Seventh … that they don’t have a right to cast [ballots].”

Pressley came into office as part of a wave of new Democratic members of Congress, unseating a well-liked 10-term incumbent in Michael Capuano. Soon after her election, already shouldering a host of policy priorities from the district, she quickly earned a reputation as an elected official ready to rebuke party leaders if they sought to downplay progressive victories.

“I read a statistic once that if you do 70 percent of what’s on your to-do list, you’ve had a very productive day because most people don’t accomplish everything on their list. I make a to-do list every day, but I’m impacted by what’s happening in real time, you know, in the real world. … But I’m going to respond accordingly as a thought leader, as a policy maker, and at times as an agitator, as I was in the case of the DCCC policy, and how I addressed the top DNC donors before I was even sworn in.”

Pressley was talking about a new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rule that penalizes pollsters, strategists, and other campaign vendors if they work for Democratic candidates challenging incumbents in primaries.

“We still have to keep having the conversation,” Pressley said. “And I just want to be very clear: I make no assumptions of bad intent, but I do believe that there would be adverse impacts both on representation, in terms of who runs and when and who is elected, and also in the contracting opportunities, which was an issue that I led on in my time on the council ­– equitable opportunity for everything from supplier diversity to consultants and contractors. And so that’s why it hasn’t stopped. I’m just fighting forward within a different industry and a different context … there are enough institutional barriers that we don’t need to create new ones.”

Another paradigm-shifting election rocked the Suffolk District Attorney’s office during the 2018 race, with a dominant victory by Rachael Rollins in the busy primary. Rollins and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration recently had a fiery back-and-forth over a 65-page policy memo laying out the Suffolk DA’s priorities for prosecution, redirecting policies about crimes prompted by poverty or desperation.

Pressley, who supported Rollins and has been pushing for criminal justice reform on the federal level, said she is eager to weigh in on district priorities when they arise. “I am not recusing the opportunity to lead and to lean in on these issues on the state and municipal level,” she said. “I think there’s work for me to do on the federal level, but where people are leading on the state and municipal level, I’ll be joining them.

“As an example,” she said, “Annissa Essaibi-George and I talked about the work that we’re going to continue to do to ensure that every school has a school nurse. I came to the State House and participated in lobbying efforts to pass the Safe Communities Act and I put out a swift statement decisively supporting the policy change that Rachael Rollins proposed. So, I’m going to continue to lean in on these issues.”