June 25, 2019
Boston Magazine: One Good Reason Not to Loathe DC? Ayanna Pressley
If we thought Ayanna Pressley had nerves of steel for challenging and taking down one of our longest-serving Democratic congressmen, it was only because we hadn’t yet seen her take on the Trump administration. In her first speech on the floor of the House in January, she delivered a scathing rebuke of President Donald Trump and the government shutdown. More recently, in an exchange that went viral, she scolded Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson for interrupting her and evading her questions. As a result, Pressley’s take-no-prisoners approach has made her a star on the national political stage. But life on Capitol Hill isn’t all fiery speeches and tense political standoffs. In late May, Pressley took time to pull back the curtain on her new life in DC.
It’s been less than six months since you’ve taken office and moved part-time to Washington, DC, and I hear you’re now living a life of roommates, late-night gab sessions, and writing your name on your groceries in the refrigerator. True?
Right now I’m subletting. I live in one of the unofficial congressional dorms on the Hill, where a number of the women members of Congress live. It’s quite the community. Occasionally we’ll cook together and watch somebody doing a late-night appearance on a cable show. We’ll all be FaceTiming our kids or grandchildren. I’m finding community and camaraderie among my colleagues. My fly-home day back to Boston is usually Friday because we often have votes Friday afternoon.
How are you adapting to the split-city life? What’s been the biggest surprise so far?
I had a blind spot about just how challenging and lonely it would be to be away from my husband and my daughter—and my cat—five days a week. It’s a very compartmentalized and separate life. I treat it like I’m a student who has finals every day. It’s a long, intense day and a lot of homework, and then I get a spring break. But not really, because once I come back I want to be visible and engaged and moving throughout the district. So at the end of the day, I’m lucky if I get a date night with my husband on Friday and then maybe worship time on Sunday morning. The whole family is really serving with you—it’s a great sacrifice. The other blind spot I had was the toll that the travel would take. I have a paralyzing fear of flying. I have not yet found the perfect recipe to manage my anxiety, so I’m working through that.
What’s your average day on the Hill like?
Typically, I get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning, my first meetings usually begin at 8 a.m., and I usually get home at 9 or 9:30 at night—and then spend about two or two and a half hours working on my line of questioning for committee hearings the next day or going over remarks for a speech.
When it comes to those committee hearings, you’ve received a lot of attention for some of the exchanges you’ve had, such as when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson tried to keep from giving you a straight answer. Have any of those sparring matches with witnesses troubled you?
Absolutely. This administration, the cabinet members that they send before us in committee, they have clear contempt. The way they engage the female members on the committee is different. There is a lot of stonewalling, a lot of obstructing, a lack of transparency, and even resentment that we are questioning them. I never go into a line of questioning hoping that the video will go viral, or that this will be delightful clickbait. I go into committee to do my job, which is to develop a thoughtful, well-researched line of questioning.
In the exchange I had with Secretary Carson, I was pushing for yes-or-no answers, not because I don’t appreciate nuance, but because on some things there is no nuance. “Do you believe that housing is a critical determinant of health?” is a yes-or-no question. And I am also trying to effectively utilize my five minutes. What I was trying to establish with Secretary Carson was a floor, a basis of understanding, so that I could move on with my larger questions.
When you are part of passing a law in the House and then watch it die in the Republican-led Senate, do you feel productive, or do you feel like you’re just participating in some kind of political theater?
Of course it’s productive. This Democratic-majority Congress, we’re going to do our job. We’re going to lead and we’re going to legislate. That will be the legacy of this Congress, and I hope that we’ll continue to build on it in the upcoming election. But in the interim, I’m not going to acquiesce in my responsibility to lead.
You got Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to essentially admit that he is not moving forward with the redesign of the $20 bill to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman. What happens next?
I’ll definitely be following up. And again, this speaks to the importance of doing your homework, and of having a staff that has core competency in this space—I have people on my staff who worked for Treasury. But it also speaks to how I know the value of representation. We plan on following up with a letter, and stay tuned: There will
be some things that we do with the public that we hope will create greater pressure. People who just assumed an inevitability, they’re now reinvigorated, and those movements have been reignited, because they realize that this secretary has no intention of honoring the previously agreed-upon timeline.
Was that the idea behind your failed amendment to lower the voting age?
When I proposed lowering the voting age to 16, we did not ultimately get that into [the For the People Act], but we got more people on the record supporting that issue than ever before—125 Democrats and one Republican, so I get to say it was bipartisan. Now every 2020 candidate is being asked about that issue. To me, there is a victory in that because there’s progress, because we advanced the debate.
Do you plan to endorse a candidate in the Democratic presidential race, perhaps sometime before the New Hampshire primary? And are there any people or policy proposals coming out of the race that intrigue you so far?
This is the truth: I have dedicated no thought to it. Certainly, the election is very important, and we have got to rid ourselves of the cancer that is the Trump administration. It certainly matters who will be our next president, now more than ever before. But I’ve been in Congress less than six months. And I was on-boarded in the midst of a federal government shutdown—that’s never happened with a freshman class. So I’ve just been focused, with my head down, on learning and doing my job. I mean, for the first two and a half months in DC, I slept on somebody’s futon. I had to set up my district office, reestablish a residence in a new city, and build a new staff. There are many, many things that I’ve been focused on in my very short tenure. There will be plenty of time for politics. And you know I’m not one to phone in an endorsement. If I am to get involved, I’m going to be all in. I don’t think now is the time for me to be traveling the country stumping for anybody. I need to do my job.
Still, you are endorsing Michelle Wu in her Boston City Council bid for reelection. That group sure has changed a lot since you were first a member—what are you hoping to see going forward in Boston?
I was just reading a Howie Carr piece in the Herald about how dull the council is now. The reality is that the process of legislating and governing is not exciting work. That’s why it’s not for everyone. The members of this council are focused on governing; they are leveraging every tool available to them, from ordinances, to home-rule petitions, to city council hearings, to being in the community. I feel very good about the hands that I left the city in, so to speak, when it comes to this council. I’m certainly biased, but I think it’s the best council the city has ever had. That has everything to do with the parity that we’ve realized, both in gender and race and ethnicity, but also in the diversity of approaches. The people of Boston are certainly no monolith, so you can’t serve them, or govern accordingly, by being a monolith. You’ve got to have that diversity of perspective, opinion, and thought, and of governing approach. And they’re just so damn smart! It’s a very, very impressive council. If people are bored because people aren’t throwing ashtrays at each other anymore or carrying concealed weapons, then so be it.
Which is the more impressive group of people to work with: those city councilors or your current fellow members of Congress?
All of my colleagues are at the caliber that they could serve in any office. It’s just about having the heart to serve people, and also having the strength of conviction. I was rereading David Axelrod’s Believer, and I love the story he tells about John F. Kennedy making a speech, where Kennedy said, I’m not here to please the public; I’m here to serve the public. It speaks to the challenges for all of us who have constituencies. It’s probably easier to be malleable, to be a shape-shifter, and to pander. This is a city council of people that certainly don’t do that. Boy, do they have the strength of conviction about their viewpoint, about their policies. They’re true leaders. And as far as the Congress that I’m serving in, this class is incredible. The diversity, the representation, the expertise; I find myself fan-girling quite often.
Do you ever miss city government?
What I miss about the council is the intimacy of it. It’s a 13-member body. Congress is huge, and you have such limited time to meaningfully foster relationships. I understand now why congresspeople are closest to whoever serves to the left and the right of them in committee, because that is where you spend the lion’s share of your time.
On your committees, you sit in between New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. You have been pretty open about forming a relationship with them, and with Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, all of whom have been controversial and have received public abuse and even death threats. Have you experienced that as well?
Yes, I have experienced my share of death threats. I see it as par for the course, and consequential to the ways in which I legislate and govern, which many consider to be disruptive. When you have an administration that is fanning the flames of misogyny and xenophobia and white supremacy, someone like me—who looks like me, who leads like me, who talks like me—my very existence is the resistance. There are people that are offended just that I show up. Just that I exist.
Was former Congressman Michael Capuano, whom you defeated, helpful during the transition? Have you been in touch with him?
Let me just say that Mike Capuano served as Somerville mayor and then as a member of Congress for 20 years. I have always had respect for him, and for the institution of Congress. And that has only deepened with the lived experience of what people sacrifice to do this work. He took a pause—and he deserved it. As well he should. So no, we’re not on the phone with each other, or furiously texting or anything like that. He’s living his life, and he deserves to do that after 30-plus years of public service.
What about your former boss, John Kerry?
He texts me if he hears me do an interview or reads a profile about me. I worked for him for 11 years during a defining time in my life. We talk issues, and we talk shop, too. He’s a sounding board and a resource, and I’m grateful for his friendship. He was there for me on my wedding day, the day my mother passed away, and the day that I lowered her into the ground for her final resting place. He has been a great mentor and friend throughout my adult life. One of the serendipitous, full-circle moments of my life was when he was invited as a witness before the Oversight and Reform Committee, on the issue of climate change and its connection to national security. It was surreal. Before I asked my question of him, as the clock was ticking down, I just apologized. I said, “As a former member of your staff, and specifically your former scheduler, now that I’m a member of Congress, I just want to say, I apologize.” He just laughed and laughed. Because when he used to say things to me, I was very unsympathetic. I would say, “Well, this is what you signed up for, J.K.” So I apologized to him at that hearing, and we have a good laugh whenever we see each other.
How about the other Massachusetts members of Congress? What was the first meeting of the state delegation like for you and how did they treat you?
Everyone has welcomed me with warm and enthusiastic arms. I mean that. I’m sure Lori Trahan [who represents much of the Merrimack Valley] would say the same thing. Our dean, Richie Neal, was very supportive in advocating for my committee assignments that he felt best suited my policy priorities. He was a tremendous advocate. Also, because I was a city councilor for eight years and worked on Capitol Hill for John Kerry for 11 years and for [former Congressman] Joe Kennedy II for four years, often as a liaison or their point of contact, I had a semblance of some relationship with members prior to my election to Congress. That’s proved tremendously helpful.
Since you won your congressional primary in September, the Red Sox have won the World Series, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl, and as we talk today the Bruins are in the Stanley Cup finals. So, do you have any message for the Celtics, who failed to win for you like the other teams?
My message is: This is what happens when you don’t demonstrate loyalty. You see what happened when we traded I.T. for Kyrie Irving? Look what happened. That young man [Isaiah Thomas], he played his heart out. I want them to get back to just old ball, you know, where you play team ball, and it’s not just centered around any one player. I bought a Bruins T-shirt today, not only because of the game tonight [Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals], but because I nominated Willie O’Ree for a Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest honor you can give any civilian. He desegregated the NHL, played for the Bruins, played professional hockey at such a competitive level, and he’s blind in one eye! It has been wonderful to lobby my colleagues in Congress to sign onto this resolution and to support his nomination, because we don’t agree on much, but it feels damn good that everybody agrees on Willie.