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August 1, 2019

WBUR: For Massachusetts’ Newest Congresswomen, It’s Been A Year Of Lessons Learned

Massachusetts U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Lori Trahan may have only been in Congress for a matter of months, but for both House freshmen, it’s already been a whirlwind experience — one that has provided them plenty of lessons.

Pressley and Trahan both arrived in Congress in January as part of a class that saw a historic number of women elected to the House.

And they’d both been there before, working as staffers on Capitol Hill long before their names graced their office doors. Trahan, of Westford, worked as an aide to former Rep. Marty Meehan, and Pressley, of Boston, worked for former Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Joseph Kennedy II.

“And we’re also both firsts, although I don’t think they give Lori enough oxygen,” said Pressley, the first black woman elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress, referring to her colleague and friend Trahan. “She is the first Portuguese American woman to represent, so it’s been wonderful to be able to walk this path with her.”

And work they do — sometimes together, sometimes on their separate priorities and the different needs of their districts.

Take the bills they sponsor. For Trahan, those include measures to require more accountability for migrant deaths in U.S. custody, to rein in opioid prescription practices, and to improve public warnings for stormwater overflows.

Pressley has sponsored bills to speed up paycheck processing to prevent overdraft fees, to ban facial recognition technology in public housing, and to formally end the federal death penalty.

‘A Relationship Business’

But Pressley says one of her first lessons was that the job is about far more than the work of legislating.

“I have realized that I can’t just have my head down, that I have to look up,” she said. “And what has been reinforced for me is, you cannot do good work unless you are in good relationships.”

For Pressley, that means being intentional about introducing herself to colleagues, talking not just about legislation, but values.

Trahan says such relationship-building is a challenge, especially coming in as they did — with the government partially shut down and a host of other urgent matters to address.

“At a time when everybody is so time constrained, we’re running from committee to committee, and trying to juggle the legislation that is before us, speaking on the floor, the needs of our district — whatever it might be — you also have to think: This is a relationship business,” Trahan said.

For both lawmakers it was a baptism by fire. Trahan arrived as her district was still reeling from the Merrimack Valley gas explosions that left a teenager dead and caused more than $1 billion in property damage.

More recently she made news for calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump within an hour of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony, leading a surge of her colleagues to do the same. Now nearly halfthe Democratic caucus backs the move, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not.

Pressley arrived after unseating long-serving Democrat Mike Capuano, and quickly made a mark by her willingness to work with lawmakers — but also break with party leadership over issues like the border funding bill, which she says didn’t have enough oversight and accountability.

Then came July. Pressley was thrust into the spotlight when Trump posted a series of racist tweets directed at her and three other congresswoman, known collectively as “The Squad.”

Pressley makes clear she won’t be daunted by the president’s taunts. But she also admits the experience isn’t easy.

“When there are people that are projecting hate onto you simply for how you show up in the world, before you even open up your mouth, when your existence becomes the resistance, it is very challenging,” she said.

She says she focuses on her work, not Trump’s tweets. Trahan says she admires how Pressley has handled the matter.

“This job is hard,” Trahan said. “You’re already under enormous pressure, enormous stress. The fact that Ayanna has to deal with this whole other layer of national attention, of attacks from our president — I can’t even imagine.”

Time Away From Families

One thing both Trahan and Pressley admit: The juggling is harder than they expected, especially with their families back in Massachusetts.

Trahan, sitting in her office between meetings and floor votes, says no two days are the same — except that they’re all busy.

“All the while, you know, I’m getting a call from my 5-year-old on Alexa, or I’m getting a FaceTime from my 9-year-old asking me if she can order a book bag for school — she’s already thinking of back-to-school shopping,” Trahan laughed. “So a day in the life is really interesting.”

For Pressley, there’s rarely a moment alone. When she isn’t in a hearing or floor vote, she’s being stopped in the halls by visitors asking to take a photograph with her, or huddled with staff. But still she says the job can be isolating.

“My blind spot was just how lonely it would be being away from my family, how much I would miss my husband and my daughter and my cat,” Pressley said.

Even finding things like a local hairstylist in D.C. can be tough.

“First of all I need a D.C. braider, so somebody hit me up on that,” Pressley laughed.

Pressley and Trahan say they value the opportunities they have to work together, as when they went to tour a migrant detention facility in Texas last month. Both see the migrant crisis as impactful for the immigrant communities in their districts.

Sometimes they vote in common, sometimes not. While Pressley uses her prominent voice to her advantage, Trahan often works more behind the scenes.

And they both know things won’t slow down when they return to Capitol Hill after Labor Day.