AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We heard from black women voters yesterday who were frustrated at being taken for granted by the Democratic Party. But those women want more than attention from candidates. They want to be taken seriously as candidates themselves.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I do want to see more of us wanting to be that decision-maker. We spent a lot of time supporting people or like helping them get elected. Why can't we be the senator? Why can't - why are we always...
CHANG: Well, 50 years after the first black woman was elected to Congress - that was Shirley Chisholm from New York - there are now hundreds of black women candidates in federal, state and local elections this year. Our co-host Audie Cornish takes it from here.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Our next guest pulled off one of the biggest upset wins of the primary season when she dethroned a 10-term Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts. Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley had spent more than a decade working in politics as an aide to lawmakers like Senator John Kerry before she decided she should be the candidate.
AYANNA PRESSLEY: I've certainly been toiling in the vineyard of democratic politics working hard to elect Democrats in the Commonwealth and throughout our country. And so for people to tell me that I should wait my turn, my mother did not raise me to ask permission to lead. And so I raised my hand.
CORNISH: I spoke to her about some of the obstacles she faced when she decided to run for Congress.
PRESSLEY: What did trouble me and hurt me was that I was daunted by the charges of identity politics throughout my campaign. And it was just sort of an assumption that my message was not appealing to or that my work had not been to the benefit of a broad and diverse coalition of many people. And that was hurtful because that is a play out of the GOP handbook, not a charge that I would have expected to be lobbied against me by Democrats and certainly not people that consider themselves to be progressive.
CORNISH: I want to jump in here because there are Democratic groups that did not necessarily endorse your campaign - right? - the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, also EMILY's List. You had people like Deval Patrick, a former governor, you had John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights legend, who all came down for your opponent, Mike Capuano. What kind of message did that send to you?
PRESSLEY: Well, first and foremost, I'm no neophyte to this, and I knew what I was getting into. There is usually a default to incumbency. I did not expect that I would have the support of the establishment locally or nationally. I knew this would be lonely. I knew it would be uphill. I knew that it would be bruising.
CORNISH: You mentioned the idea of having to go up against incumbents - right? - in a Democratic establishment. What are some of the obstacles that people who are newer to politics are going to face, especially as black women? Are there other kinds of aspects to running that they may be locked out of either by tradition or through other factors?
PRESSLEY: Well (laughter) listen; I was told everything from I shouldn't be wearing my hair in twists, I shouldn't wear hoops, I shouldn't be as transparent about my personal hardships, and I think that more of us need to feel empowered to stand in our truth and to authentically represent our lived experience. What my family dealt with - the destabilization and devastation of mass incarceration, having a loved one that was incarcerated in our household, of having a loved one battling addiction, of sexual trauma and violence and the stigma of that - these are universal challenges.
CORNISH: So it was the idea that your very biography is the kind of thing that people might have looked at as a disadvantage and that's a thing you felt like you had to turn into an advantage in some way.
PRESSLEY: Absolutely. People said because I don't have a degree that I have no business running for office. I left school not because I didn't know the value of an education but because my mother got sick, and she lost her job. And I was her caregiver in battling that pre-existing condition of leukemia, which ultimately took her life. That is a story that millions of Americans can relate to, and we need more people that are governing from a place of lived experience because these are the experiences of millions. And the reason why so many policies don't work for people is because people are not at the center of those policies.
CORNISH: You know, right now, we're looking at Stacey Abrams in Georgia - right? - fighting to become the first black female governor. There is Linda Coleman running for Congress in North Carolina. Why now? It's been many, many years where there haven't been that many women of color running. What do you think is different?
PRESSLEY: Well, to be clear, even though we haven't had that leadership parity in gender and race, black women have been leading in faith communities, in social, racial, gender and economic justice movements. We've been on the front lines. We've proven that our votes matter, that our voices matter, and now we're proving that our leadership matters. The polls had us down by 13 points, and we won by 17 because we expanded the electorate. And ultimately, you can't poll transformation. And that is what is afoot in this country right now. But you can't vote for the best candidate if they're not on the ballot. And so more of us have to run.
CORNISH: Ayanna Pressley of Boston City Council, thank you so much for speaking with us.
PRESSLEY: Thank you.
CORNISH: That's Ayanna Pressley. With no Republican challenger next week, she is set to become the first black woman representative in Congress from Massachusetts.
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