Ayanna Pressley, the Representative-elect from Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, offered a sharp rebuke of the Democratic Party in front of the party’s biggest donors Tuesday, saying that she discovered a “mandate for hope” over the course of her efforts to unseat an entrenched Democratic incumbent and campaigning for insurgent candidates around the country.
In an audio recording made available to BuzzFeed News, the Boston Democrat told donors gathered for a Democratic National Committee fundraising meeting in Washington that the 2018 election cycle had “altered the course of history,” and that Democrats need to ask themselves “if we are simply content with making history, or if want to commit ourselves to working together to make a lasting, transformative change.”
Pressley, who beat 10-term incumbent Democrat Rep. Michael Capuano in a September primary, told Democratic donors that the party needs to figure out how best to support women candidates of color, like herself and other newly elected members of Congress, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar.
“I know, given the new people that we engaged in democracy, that we have restored hope for many. We have given hope to many and we must do everything we can to keep that hope,” said Pressley.
She spoke about the unprecedented number of women this year who pushed, organized, and put in the work to be at the seat of power. But it was no celebratory remark. “Now we must push ourselves to ask the tough questions about whether or not we provided them with the institutional support so we can break through more glass and concrete ceilings as rapidly as possible.”
In addition to a need to better invest in diverse candidates, Pressley said the same investment was needed to help build diversity and inclusion at the staff level, people with the necessary “lived and professional experiences needed to serve” constituencies.
Pressley, through her office, declined comment on her remarks to BuzzFeed News.
The address was perhaps the most poignant of any from a litany of Democratic speakers at the Tuesday meeting, several people who were in attendance said. Pressley, who is already making her presence felt on Capitol Hill, touched on the importance of having close proximity to marginalized and vulnerable communities and offered a vision of a party that puts the needs of those communities at the forefront of the agenda.
Her message could have an acute impact in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, as her national profile grows along with the grassroots energy her campaign inspired.
Pressley offered a concise vision for the future of the Democratic Party. She told donors that she had conducted a hearing on gun violence the previous evening and brought a message from a young person to the floor, one that the Democratic Party has grappled with for a generation: “Do black lives only matter in election years when our votes are at stake?”
Pressley echoed a challenging statement she has made about Democrats and identity: “Are we really who we say we are?” She referenced a prayer devotional book by Joshua DuBois, a former top adviser to Barack Obama, who described a “gentle battle” each person faces each day. Pressley said, “Of all of the negotiations and decisions of our day, this gentle battle is the most important: Will we go in the direction of worry, weariness, or indifference? Or in the direction of joy, of peace, of equality, and justice?”
“I applaud each one of you for winning that gentle battle today. And what I would offer is that our nation and our party face a crossroads.”
The 10-minute address, one person in attendance said, garnered cheers and standing applause, and also people who sat back with their arms crossed. Pressley, for good measure, told the audience that she didn’t intend to make anyone uncomfortable, but she didn’t not come to make anyone uncomfortable, either.
“I’m okay with doing that in the name and in pursuit of progress,” she continued. “Those young people are demanding and expecting more from me. And I owe it to them. I ran to fight for the ignored, the left out, and the left behind. And that is not only true for the electorate. Together we’ll do that work beginning with our own party.”
Pressley poked holes in one of the Democratic orthodoxies coming out of the 2018 cycle, dismissing in strong terms the idea that Democrats were successful in 2018 because of voters’ dissatisfaction with the Trump administration. Pressley said the key to winning again in 2020 is to “take the lessons learned this cycle and apply them.” But, she said, that could only be accomplished if Democrats are “candid and frank” about when Democrats have lived their values and when they “came up short from the very values that we espouse as a party.”
Pressley said she considered it to be a “family meeting,” and that because Democrats won, the meeting hardly qualified as a postmortem.
“It has been said that people are ultimately motivated to vote for one of two reasons: hope or fear,” said Pressley. “I reject this shallow analysis and narratives about our campaign that have summed up our victory as one that was a referendum against hate. In the Massachusetts 7th and across the nation, what I saw — what I bore witness to — was a mandate for hope,” she said.
“But we do need a checkup.”