Honest Graft headquarters is located in the 7th District of Massachusetts, a constituency that rarely commands the attention of the national political world. As denizens of a one-party city located within a seldom-competitive state, Boston voters are unused to producing electoral outcomes of interest to anyone but ourselves (if even that). But on Tuesday night, an already newsy day in American politics was capped by a major upset: the defeat, by a wide popular margin, of 10-term incumbent House member Mike Capuano by Boston city councillor Ayanna Pressley.
I'll admit that I expected Capuano to win this race. He wasn't caught napping by Pressley's challenge; in fact, he outspent her by a substantial amount and, at least in our corner of the district, ran a more visible campaign. Moreover, his down-the-line liberal voting record in Congress gave Pressley few specific targets to attack. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while the district is nominally a majority-minority seat, the active electorate is mostly white—and white Bostonians do not have much of a history of voting for non-white Bostonians.
As I argued on Twitter, I think it's a mistake to view the Pressley victory primarily as a manifestation of a larger pattern of ideological purity tests in Democratic nomination politics; if pundits insist upon characterizing the results in MA-07 as part of a national trend, a much better choice of context is the record-setting rate at which Democratic voters are nominating women for office in 2018. In fact, other results around the state on Tuesday didn't fit the story of a newly-dominant left. Incumbent House members Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch—the latter much less liberal than Capuano—easily defeated insurgent primary challengers, and statewide candidates Jay Gonzalez and Bill Galvin cruised to victory over more left-leaning opponents.
But the Pressley-Capuano race does represent a potential milestone all the same, with resonances that extend beyond the borders of the district in which it was fought. Steady rates of population change over the past two decades or so in Boston—as well as in neighboring Cambridge and Somerville, both located at least partially within the borders of MA-07—have brought streams of younger professionals into neighborhoods that were previously home to working-class urban residents. Both types of voters are mostly Democratic—and, to a degree, mostly liberal—but they have different sets of political concerns, priorities, and styles.
A city that has become mostly a collection of highly-educated cosmopolitan whites and politically mobilized racial minorities is potentially fertile ground for candidates with Pressley's profile—and, in fact, the most remarkable thing about this race might be how long it took for these population shifts to translate into political change. The Somerville of the 1990s was still home to a significant blue-collar "white ethnic" vote that elected Capuano mayor before helping to send him to Congress in the first place; the Somerville of today is a rapidly gentrifying satellite of the Tufts and Harvard campuses that nearly opted for Pressley over its erstwhile favorite son.
It could well turn out to be a fitting coincidence that Pressley defeated Capuano on the same day that Rahm Emanuel announced his retirement as mayor of Chicago. Emanuel personifies a certain kind of urban politician—liberal and Democratic, yet bluntly transactional, impatient with idealism, and sensitive to the interests of businesses and law enforcement unions—who once ruled American cities from one side of the country to the other but who are becoming increasingly scarce, and even somewhat anachronistic. We may be observing the rise of a new style of urban politics that is more conversant with national issues and ideological currents than its predecessors, and in which white voters increasingly join non-whites in opposing policies and patterns of demographic representation that are perceived to disfavor racial minorities and other socially disadvantaged groups. If so, Boston will not be the only city to soon feel a political change in the air.