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Out front: Ayanna Pressley ready to make history

Yawu Miller | 10/21/2009, 5:50 a.m.
Ayanna Pressley responds to a question during recent Boston City Council forum at UMass Boston. Sponsored by MassVote, Pressley debated issues with other At-Large City Council candidates. Tony Irving

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Ayanna Pressley responds to a question during recent Boston City Council forum at UMass Boston. Sponsored by MassVote, Pressley debated issues with other At-Large City Council candidates.

It took a few minutes of conversation to convert Rahshawn Beaman to a supporter of Ayanna Pressley.

 “You’ve got my vote Nov. 3,” he told her as he walked away from the turnstile at Ruggles Station.

“She has a passion for what she wants to do,” Beaman told the Banner as he exited the station. “She has a passion for change.”

Since she entered the race for an at-large seat on the City Council in April, Pressley has become a front-runner in the race, placing 4th out of a field of 15 in the preliminary.

If her position holds in the November 3 election — which observers say is highly likely — she will become the first black woman elected to the Boston’s council.

A veteran campaigner, Pressley has worked for 16 years as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, working her way up from constituent services to political director.

Pressley says she has had no trouble transitioning into the role of a candidate.

“I’ve been a silent partner behind the scenes for a long time,” she says. “Now I’m looking to be a public partner. People see this as a natural trajectory of my life’s work.”

Like many of the candidates in this year’s at-large race, Pressley has made her life’s story a centerpiece of her campaign. She was raised in Chicago by a single mother while her father battled heroin addiction and served time in prison.

She says her mother, who worked as a community organizer for the Urban League, struggled to send her to a good school outside her neighborhood and pay the bills.

“I came home to a lot of eviction notices,” she says. “I learned very quickly that I had a different reality in my neighborhood than my classmates. Their neighborhoods had banks. We had check cashers. They had supermarkets. We had corner stores. It emboldened me to want that same reality not just for myself, but for everyone.”

Pressley came to Boston in 1992 to attend Boston University. She went from summer internships in Kennedy’s office to a full-time job with the congressman.

Apparently, Pressley’s story is winning converts. Scotland Willis, whose bid for the Council was cut short in the preliminary, says he was impressed by her vision.

“I found that the more I listened to her, the more I was compelled by her story,” he said as he handed out Pressley palm cards at Ruggles Station last week. “She has an in-depth understanding of the issues. She understands the issues on a visceral level.”

Pressley says her experience working in congressional offices providing constituent services, has given her a good perspective on the role of government in people’s lives.

“It’s where I learned that good government begins with good service delivery,” she says.

On the City Council, Pressley says she will draw on her personal experiences to advocate for social justice issues including education reform, affordable housing and improving public transportation.

While the public transportation falls under the purview of state government, Pressley notes that the city contributes $74 million a year to the MBTA and can wield influence on transportation decisions and councilors can use their office as a bully pulpit to make sure their constituents needs are met by local, state and federal government.

“It’s very important that the community is heard and our views are respected,” she says. “This job is a partnership. I really want to improve the relationship between people and government.”

Pressley has racked up an impressive collection of endorsements from elected officials, unions and ward committees.

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, attributes her strong base of support to her political acumen.

“She does her homework,” Small says. “I see Ayanna being the one who lines up the votes behind the scenes. She’s great at politics, but she’s a politician with a heart.”

Pressley’s fourth-place finish in the preliminary was an impressive feat for a first-time candidate. Working in her favor is the fact that she is the only woman in the race.

Additionally, Pressley’s ties to the Democratic party have helped swell the ranks of her campaign with veteran operatives including manager James Chisolm and spokesman Reubin Kantor.

Former WBZ-TV 4 reporter Sarah Ann Shaw says that if Pressley makes it, it will be on her own merits, including a unique ability to connect with people.