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September 4, 2019

The Boston Globe: Ayanna Pressley reflects on the year since her upset primary victory

On the one-year anniversary of her historic primary victory, US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston returned Wednesday to a key scene of her upstart campaign: the MBTA’s No. 1 bus.

She was sitting toward the back, next to the window, chatting with a constituent, when a man in the row ahead caught wind she was aboard. “Ayanna’s here? Where?” asked Edward Stuart, turning around, incredulous and searching. He spotted her, right behind him. “Jesus!”

The 68-year-old security guard wondered aloud at his luck, telling Pressley how he sees her on TV but never imagined he would meet her on the bus home from work. “You go girl!”

The scene captured some of the crosscurrents of Pressley’s remarkable year. Then, she was a Boston city councilor running a long-shot congressional campaign. Now, she’s a nationally known representative who’s greeted as a celebrity.

Her upset victory over a longtime incumbent helped vault her into the national spotlight; her rhetorical and social-media skills, an alliance with the other three members of “the Squad,” and a barrage of attacks by President Trump have helped keep her there.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Globe, Pressley, the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, brushed aside Trump’s attacks as predictable and distracting from “the everyday injustices” his administration is meting out.

And, Pressley said, eight heady months after being sworn into Congress, she’s focused not on White House tweets but on the same issues of inequality on which she built her insurgent campaign. They are disparities that she says the No. 1 bus captures as it traverses the Seventh Congressional District, from the wealth and privilege of parts of Cambridge to the poverty of parts of Roxbury — so much so that she used the route as the focal point of a campaign video.

“It really sharpens why we embarked upon this journey in the first place,” Pressley said of her bus ride. The conversations she has on such trips leave her with “sobering confirmation” of the challenges her district faces, she said. “But I also get off the bus feeling so emboldened to continue to do the work to address all the hard things I learned about on that bus.”

As evidence, Pressley pointed to the legislative work she’s done so far, including the 10 pieces of legislation she has introduced. The very first was a workers’ rights bill to ensure back pay for government contract workers — security guards, janitors, and the like — who got no paychecks during the 35-day government shutdown at the start of the year. She got the measure included in a spending bill that passed the House. (The Senate has not yet acted on it.) Other efforts have focused on housing affordability — an issue that fellow bus riders raised frequently on Wednesday, she said — gun violence, disparities in health care, and immigration.

Most recently, Pressley pushed for a hearing on the Trump administration’s effort to end the ability of severely ill immigrant children to remain legally in the United States for medical care. That hearing is set for next week.

Pressley pointed to the public outcry, which prompted the Trump administration to at least partially reverse course, as a reason for optimism — despite the obstacles she and other Democrats face moving their agenda forward in a divided Washington.

“I believe in the power of us,” Pressley said. While she’s not in denial about the challenges, “I do think because of public pressure, and equitable outrage on a host of issues, from immigration reform to gun violence, that we will make progress.”

Her fans say her national stature has given her an ability to harness public sentiment far beyond what the average freshman lawmaker has. Still, the 45 year-old Democrat sounds surprised by her celebrity, even in her own district, which encompasses much of Boston, parts of Cambridge and Milton, as well as all of Chelsea, Everett, Randolph, and Somerville.

She bet her chief of staff $5 that no one would recognize her on the bus ride, a wager she lost several times over. She laughed incredulously at the idea that her endorsement in the 2020 Democratic primary is something to be coveted.

“The only way that I even know that maybe people outside of my district know who I am, to be honest, is just based on social media platforms and just, say, amplification of what are sometimes some really hard things,” she said.

Among them were the attacks President Trump launched against her and three fellow first-term lawmakers — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — when the four of them were the only House Democrats to oppose a bill to provide funding to address the humanitarian crisis at the border.

Via Twitter, Trump told the quartet — three of whom were born in the United States and all of whom are US citizens — that if they do not like this country they could leave.

As for how it feels to be in the president’s line of fire, Pressley said she tries to keep it in perspective and stay focused on fighting the “even more hateful and hurtful policies” his administration is pursuing.

“Everything he says is consistent with what he’s always said,” she said. “It’s hard to be disappointed or hurt by what has become a predictable pattern of behavior.”

The star power Pressley has demonstrated in less than a year in Congress already has the chattering classes speculating about her next move.

But asked about her political future, she said she’d leave that to the pundits. “I’m not thinking beyond the next hour, and that is the truth.”

She turned to a line she has used before: “I just follow the work. Wherever the work takes me, that’s where I go.”