Put the People Before the Power


Photograph by David Yellen

41. Ayanna Pressley

Boston city councilor at large

This March, City Councilor at large Ayanna Pressley made her national debut when she appeared onstage at the EMILY’s List gala to accept the 2015 Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award in front of hundreds of the country’s most influential progressive politicians, journalists, and rainmakers. As she told her story—raised by a struggling single mother in Chicago, surviving a sexual assault as a student at Boston University—the crowd was silent. When she got to the part where she topped the ticket in the 2011 City Council election, the audience roared.

It was a star-making moment. “I was completely transfixed by her,” said the New Republic’s Rebecca Traister. “The other people at my table were all saying, ‘Holy crap.’ It was like listening to Obama in 2004—she was so clearly the real deal.” From the gala floor Traister sent out a tweet: I have seen politics future and it is Ayanna Pressley.

Pressley, now gearing up to run for a fourth term, says she’s honored but a little nonplussed by all the buzz. “It’s interesting when people try to engage with me and relate to me as if I’m emerging as some bigfoot, when I still very much feel like the underdog,” she said in her City Hall office. “I don’t plan on ever losing that…it’s why I’m not complacent.”

Boston insiders have been eyeing her as a potential candidate for higher office—from mayor to congresswoman—and now Beltway insiders are, too. Pressley won’t say that’s on her horizon, though. She insists that she’s not interested in politics for its own sake—only in service of the “work,” a word she pronounces with a capital W. For Pressley, that means empowering young women and girls; reducing violence and aiding struggling families; and revitalizing marginalized neighborhoods. There’s a lot still to be done, she said.

“I don’t have stars in my eyes,” she said. “I’m not personally ambitious. I’m very aspirational…. I’m going to follow the work. And the rest will figure itself out.” 

View the full list of Boston’s 50 Most Powerful People.

Check out more of our Power 2015 coverage.