New York Times: Hope and High Drama: A Year With Two New Democratic Congresswomen
By Susan Dominus
There are not many people whom Abigail Spanberger lets boss her around, but one of them, somehow, is Lois Frankel, a 71-year-old, 5-foot-3 four-term congresswoman from Florida who has a way of waving away protestations with a brisk, cheerful air, somewhere between “Don’t be ridiculous” and “This’ll be great.”
Last fall, it was Frankel who told Spanberger, a former covert C.I.A. case officer who had just been elected to Congress, where she should live in Washington: in Frankel’s apartment building, about a 15-minute walk from the Capitol. Spanberger said thanks but no thanks — some privacy would be nice — then looked around, found nothing, went back to Frankel and told her by text: Fine, I’ll live in your building. Frankel texted her back: Bring your bathing suit; we do water aerobics. Sunglasses-wearing emoji, sunglasses-wearing emoji, heart-eye emoji.
Now it was July. Spanberger had thus far wriggled out of the water aerobics and skipped most of the many, many social events — Taco Tuesday! Potluck! — that Frankel organized for the 20 or so congresswomen who live in the building. At Frankel’s urging, Spanberger did show up at a pajama party, but she drew the line at wearing pajamas. “I’ll pop by,” Spanberger usually promised Frankel, but she almost never did. Frankel understands: call time. As one of the many Democrats who flipped red districts in 2018 — Spanberger won her Virginia race by less than 2 percentage points — she had to fund-raise like hell.
And yet on a Tuesday in mid-July, on one of the last weary 90-degree days before the House went on summer recess for six weeks, there was Spanberger, ordering a plate of roasted brussels sprouts at a medium-fussy farm-to-table restaurant with Frankel and friends: Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the second-highest-ranking woman in the House, Ann Kuster of New Hampshire and Chellie Pingree of Maine, all building neighbors, all Democrats.
Not long after they arrived, Cheri Bustos, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, another close friend of Frankel’s, joined the table. Bustos was fresh from a workout, in leggings and a tank top. “Look at you!” Frankel called out to her across the table. “You look so ... trendy!”
The women were rehashing some of the more antic events of the day — interparty drama on the House floor — when the molecules of the room seemed to realign in one direction. Standing in front of the table was Ayanna Pressley, another first-year member, another resident of Frankel’s building. Pressley, who is tall and usually wears heels, has a commanding, glamorous presence, so that other guests at the restaurant might have wondered who she was, even if they didn’t recognize her as one of the most frequently covered members of the congressional freshman class. A former city councilwoman in Boston, Pressley, who is 45, was the first African-American woman to win a seat in Congress from Massachusetts. Her social media feed skyrocketed not long after she was elected. “Good morning, Washington,” she posted on Instagram during a congressional orientation, along with a photo of herself, a simple statement of arrival that landed some 18,000 likes. Her team’s many responsibilities included crowd control when she spoke in public: People flocked to her as an inspirational figure as much as an elected official. “Ayanna!” Frankel called out with delight, when she saw her at the restaurant that night. Ayanna was popping by!
Standing beside Pressley was her husband, Conan Harris, who had come to town to offer some moral support during a grueling week in which the president fired off several hostile tweets that targeted Pressley, among others.
“I came down to tell her she did a good job,” Harris said to the group, smiling at Pressley. “Check in. Get some face time.”
Shortly after Spanberger and Pressley were elected to Congress, the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. singled them out as possible future stars of the party. Spanberger, who is 40, had demonstrated with her win that a certain kind of Democrat — pragmatic, strong on national security and focused on issues like health care — could appeal to both Democrats and moderate Republicans tired of incivility and partisanship. Pressley, who had ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent, had proved something else: that the right charismatic candidate with progressive values could successfully bring to the party first-time voters, particularly students, Latinos, immigrants and African-Americans. Pressley — the daughter of a man who was incarcerated for many years, a person raised by a single mother, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse — ran on the campaign slogan “Change Can’t Wait.”
“Spanberger and Pressley would do their party a favor by becoming best friends,” Dionne wrote in The Post last November, arguing that the two blocs they represented would need to work together to defeat President Trump. When Spanberger ran into Pressley at a congressional orientation the day the column ran, Spanberger snapped a selfie of them both, then tweeted the image out, the two newly elected representatives beaming, their faces touching — she appreciated Dionne’s sentiment, Spanberger wrote. Pressley retweeted Spanberger’s tweet, adding, “To quote a fierce & fearless leader, (& my future good friend) @SpanbergerVA07, ‘When we listen to each other and work together to live up to our values, there’s nothing we can’t do.’ ”
Now Spanberger, wary, barely looked up from her brussels sprouts as her once future best friend greeted the table. Pressley was not going to join them for dinner because her husband was there; Spanberger’s body language made it clear that was just as well. The dynamics of Congress, the tensions between factions, the media spectacle of it all — it was getting her down, she explained when Pressley had moved on. “I’m just ... having a cynical day,” she said.
It’s not easy showing up as a first-year House member that first week in January: The institution is built on norms that no one could be expected to anticipate, much less consider normal. That the offices, for example, don’t necessarily come with trash cans. That any unchained piece of furniture outside the office — a stand for a guest book, for example — is likely to disappear. That no one really expects you to be on time, because scheduled meetings overlap. That the Capitol’s marble floors will be murder on your feet, your back. Heels, like expectations, start out high. Eventually, pragmatism takes over; life goes on in a low, comfortable wedge.
This year’s freshman class started in a moment of exceptional upheaval, even by congressional standards: For the first time, new lawmakers arrived in the middle of a government shutdown, imposed by Trump, who was refusing to sign off on a budget that did not include $5.7 billion for the wall he wanted along the Mexican border. Starting in the middle of a shutdown: For an aspiring politician, this is like moving into a dream house just as the septic tank explodes. Constituents and activists and no small number of kooks with the office number on speed dial are calling and calling and calling to tell members who have been in office for maybe 18 hours that they are disgusted; they are yelling at them to just build a wall already and open the government, or not to build a wall, never to give in to Trump, never, never, never.
Then there are the new co-workers: a body the size of a small high school packed with nothing but strivers, do-gooders, bossy types and shiny pennies, none so shiny as this year — some so shiny you could go blind. The day she started the job, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representing parts of Queens and the Bronx, had 1.8 million Twitter followers — fans mesmerized by her ingenious use of social media to transmit wit, fight and idealism. More than one million people have watched a video that captured Ayanna Pressley sobbing in the arms of her campaign manager, Sarah Groh, after learning that she beat Representative Michael Capuano, a longtime progressive in his 10th term, in the primary. In the past, the celebrity House member was pretty much an oxymoron, unless you considered Tip O’Neill or Newt Gingrich a celebrity. Throngs of television cameras from all corners of the earth did not flock to the Capitol to try to catch a glimpse of Newt Gingrich. Now longtime staff members on Capitol Hill were horrified by what all the attention would do to an already fractious House. Would this be the Kardashian Congress?
Arriving, as Pressley did, as someone who unseated a well-liked incumbent is also not easy: It’s like showing up for a new job to replace a popular co-worker whom you fought to get fired. Capuano did not have Pressley’s crowd appeal, but he had made a lot of good friends, including Representative Maxine Waters of California, who went out of her way to endorse him. The Congressional Black Caucus also endorsed him. So many people with whom Pressley now had to work had declared, essentially, that they hoped she would lose.
But Pressley had won, after all, which is why she was, on Jan. 3, the first day of the new congressional session, on the floor of the House — nervous, thrilled, aware that not everyone would welcome her with open arms; confident, nonetheless, that she would find her way. After a moving ceremony with the Congressional Black Caucus, she arrived at the Capitol for her first vote of the year, for speaker of the House. On opening day, members are encouraged to bring their children, which means that if you arrive on the later side, as Pressley did, seats are scarce. Pressley’s feet were killing her; her 10-year-old stepdaughter, Cora, was starving. Throughout her campaign, Pressley had said, quoting Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair. Now Pressley had been elected, and she literally could not find a seat on the House floor. She and Cora sat down on a bench intended for staff members, in the back of the room, and listened as the members, called in alphabetical order, shouted out their candidates for speaker. Just before her name would be called, Pressley made her way to cast her vote someplace more visible. She heard her name: “Pressley.”
“Nancy Pelosi!” she said, with some drama.
Around her, a series of heads swiveled. One man raised his eyebrows. Another laughed, not meanly. Pressley was confused. The congressman who laughed, Steven Palazzo, a Republican from Mississippi, leaned in and joked that she should have voted for him instead. Suddenly, Pressley, taking in the nearby crowd of white men, got it: She was casting her vote for the new Democratic leader among a sea of Republicans.
“On the House floor, you don’t have assigned seats,” Pressley explained a few weeks later, sitting in her office in the Longworth Building, where many freshmen have their offices. “People just sort of mill around. It’s really like an adult cafeteria — people are cliquey, and they have their section, and it’s just understood where they sit, and you don’t sit there. I know that now. But I didn’t know that then.”
Across the floor that day, Abigail Spanberger was taking up three seats: one daughter on her lap, two beside her, all of them a tangle of fair hair as they leaned into one another and whispered. Spanberger was trying to savor the moment, but her kids were starving.
On her other side sat Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who, like Spanberger, had flipped a Republican-held seat. They were two of five women, all with a military or intelligence background, who befriended one another after meeting up on the campaign trail at various functions held to support candidates in Republican-held districts. (The party calls members who win in those districts Frontliners.) Early on, a few progressive staff members were irked that several of the moderate women chose offices near one another: Wasn’t Congress cliquey enough without geographic reinforcement? To Spanberger and Houlahan, it seemed like a natural choice: Why not take the edge off a grueling job by staying close to friends, maybe even sharing tips? They made fun of one another’s media spots, sent one another “What the hell??”-type messages approximately 14 times a day.
At the speaker vote, the mood among Democrats was joyful — they had the majority at last! Spanberger, by contrast, looked serious, even nervous, as if she might be hiding behind the 4-year-old in her lap. It was the first vote she had ever taken, and she was not voting with the party. It wasn’t exactly awkward, but it wasn’t ideal either; she certainly did not want to look as though she were taking it lightly.
Spanberger’s district, which had voted decisively for Trump, included several rural counties where Pelosi’s name had become, for many voters, a kind of slur, synonymous with a liberal agenda. Spanberger ran against Dave Brat, a conservative economics professor who defeated Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, in a 2014 primary in large part by running a successful anti-immigrant campaign. But after two terms, Brat had become unpopular in the district for the same reason Cantor had: He never seemed to show up. Constituents complained that they saw more of him on Fox News than they did in the district. Spanberger promised town halls and accessibility, neither of which were Brat’s strengths. (“The women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Brat was caught on tape complaining to a conservative audience in 2017.) Spanberger made strong eye contact, had credibility on national security and had run her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop. She did not go after Trump by name, and in the end, she drew the support of swing voters in the district’s two wealthiest counties, as well as rural voters who wanted someone to fix their everyday problems — prescription-drug and health care costs especially.
In March 2018, Spanberger let officials at the D.C.C.C. know that she felt the party needed new leadership — to “turn the page.” Spanberger did not get any pushback. As Pelosi often said in 2018 when asked how she felt about candidates who might not support her for House speaker, “Just win, baby.”
So Spanberger was stunned by the intense lobbying that began once she was actually elected; by the time she was wrapping her children’s Christmas presents, she was fielding six or seven calls a day from local Democratic figures who were “very disappointed” that she was not supporting Pelosi, or House members warning that she would end up in committee Siberia. During that orientation session for first-year representatives in late November, a member stood up at a meeting to argue that anyone who did not vote for Pelosi clearly did not understand how this place worked, was simply naïve. “Oh,” Spanberger had realized with a start, and some irritation. She was being lobbied by insult. “They’re talking to me.”
One of the first executive moves Ayanna Pressley made as a congresswoman-elect was to appoint her then-29-year-old campaign manager, Sarah Groh, her chief of staff. Making your campaign manager your chief of staff is like moving when pregnant: Those with experience say it’s a bad idea, but plenty of people do it anyway, because it feels like the right thing, even if the two jobs require different skill sets. Pressley never felt more comfortable making a decision than when Groh was in the room. The chief of staff is essential for helping a new member build relationships, and Groh had already proved herself instrumental for Pressley in that regard: She was a friend of Ocasio-Cortez’s — they had both been student activists in Boston — and back in June 2018, at Groh’s invitation, Ocasio-Cortez joined Pressley at a small fund-raiser in New York. The two women quickly connected as they spoke before the crowd, and they promised to see each other in Washington. “So I can’t wait till we win and go start our own caucus,” Pressley said to Ocasio-Cortez.
On Nov. 12, 2018, Veterans Day, they attended an orientation for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, where Pressley met various new members she had admired from afar during their campaigns. Two of them, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, had agreed, along with Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez, to duck out of the orientation so they could speak on a panel hosted by VoteRunLead, a nonprofit that supports female candidates, especially women of color. That day on the panel, Pressley acknowledged that many of them were, as she was, a first — Omar and Tlaib were the first Muslim women elected to the House, and Ocasio-Cortez, at 29, was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress — but Pressley emphasized that she did not want the hoopla over their identities to “get in the way of the work.”
When the discussion was over, a staff member at the nonprofit snapped a photo, and Ocasio-Cortez quickly posted it to Instagram with one small word: “Squad.” On their way back to orientation, Ocasio-Cortez held up her phone’s camera as the group walked through the halls of an office building. “We out here!” she said. Her tone was playfully subversive — it was a warning as much as an announcement. Pressley, chiming in, struck a friendlier note: “Hi, y’all!” she said with a smile. Ocasio-Cortez labeled the video “squadgoals.” The photo and the video captured something intimate and vibrant about the four women of color, who as a group looked like no other congresswomen ever elected: Omar, in a hijab; Pressley, with braids; Ocasio-Cortez, so youthful. The photo on Instagram picked up 6,000 comments and 200,000 likes in 24 hours. The name stuck.
The four women were already mutual fans, but now, because Ocasio-Cortez was an instinctual brander, they were all instantly something more, at least in the public’s imagining: girlfriends, a team, a four-person symbol of ascendant minority and female power but also of the far-left resistance, coming from within the building.
Spanberger had been in office less than two weeks when she headed to work with mixed emotions. It was Jan. 16, and she was going to meet the president of the United States. Who would have ever dreamed that she, Abigail Spanberger, would be meeting with the president? And who would have ever dreamed that if she did, she would not even be excited?
Spanberger was one of only seven Democrats in the House who agreed to meet with Trump (along with a number of Republicans) to discuss a possible path out of the government shutdown; all seven were members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of Democrats and Republicans who commit to try to work together. Spanberger hoped that as someone who had worked for the C.I.A. and who had also served as a postal inspector, tracking narcotics, she might be able to demonstrate that “there were Democrats who could reliably discuss security issues.” At a minimum, she thought, she should tell the president that the federal employees in her district were suffering without pay. Also unspoken: Trump was popular in her district. It would not hurt for her to demonstrate to voters that she was showing the office some respect by meeting with him.
Spanberger and her fellow caucus members met with Trump and some of his staff on relatively neutral territory: a room right off the one where President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were photographed the day before Osama bin Laden was shot — a location that, it turned out, looked like any other boring conference room without those two people in it. At the meeting, the president congratulated some of the Democrats on their great wins; “I think he called them ‘tremendous,’ ” Spanberger said. She found that odd. When a colleague mentioned her credentials — that she was ex-C.I.A. — Trump gave an impressed “Oooh!” Spanberger also thought that was odd. Then she listened, with some amazement, as the president reiterated the same stories he had been repeating, with some evident excitement, in speeches in recent weeks: Girls, very pretty girls, migrants, being abducted and trafficked at the border, their mouths wrapped in duct tape, their hands tied behind their backs, sometimes their legs tied, too.
Spanberger often observed Trump, in some of his more outrageous televised moments, with great fascination, trying to discern what, exactly, was going on: Is it an act? she wondered. A shtick? What is it? What struck Spanberger now in the room, listening to Trump recount plot lines straight out of some lurid action movie, was that he clearly believed all of it. “It would be one thing if he was using these stories to gin up fear,” she said not long after the meeting. “But to go one step further — someone else is using these stories to gin up fear in him. In some perverse world, it would be better if he were just a political mastermind, knowing these stories are fake.”
Spanberger had barely started the job, and already her estimation of Washington, and what might happen there, was so much lower than when she began.
On her seventh day in Congress, Ayanna Pressley was preparing to leave her office — she had landed her top choice, a former office of Chisholm’s — to go to the floor for a vote. She wore a black knit dress that she worried was not floor-appropriate and shoved into her backpack a pink flannel blazer that she would probably put on before voting. Inside the bag, the jacket competed for space with what looked like the entirety of Lord & Taylor’s costume-jewelry department. “There is going to be a lot of ugly sparkle going on,” Pressley said as she started walking toward the door with staff members. The young woman working reception at the front desk pointed out that one of Pressley’s many braids was loose. “Black woman looking out for me,” she said.
When Pressley started her career as a young woman of color, she felt she had to rely on a certain aesthetic to broadcast legitimacy. Before running for City Council, she worked as an aide to Capuano’s predecessor, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, and eventually as political director for Senator John Kerry, a time in her life when she wore a lot of brooches. Pearls. Scarves. “I dressed like an old lady,” she said. “I thought I had to.”
As difficult as the shutdown was, a feeling of giddiness was still evident in those first weeks — a sense of fresh victory. All the staff members in Pressley’s office had to do was look around at one another and feel a sense of pride: An overwhelming majority of the team Pressley hired were young women of color. When staff members from Pressley’s office walked down the halls of the Capitol, they knew they were part of an overall new look for Congress; it was a posse that could make all those white men in suits look like comical throwbacks. Riding in an elevator up to the vote, Pressley took in the sight of the four female staff members with her: one Mexican-American woman, two black women and Groh, who is white. “I feel like I’m in a girls’ group with y’all,” Pressley said. They were Destiny’s Child. They broke into “Bootylicious”: “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.”
Just a few weeks later, the mood in Pressley’s office had turned subdued. “You know, my husband always says that I have a very big energy, and even when I’m being just myself and in my head, that it can affect everything, everyone around me,” Pressley said, sitting behind a big, clean desk, her computer open as she typed and talked. “He always says I think loudly.”
The shutdown was over, which was a relief, but it also meant the arrival of new responsibilities. That day was the first meeting of the session of Pressley’s most visible committee, Oversight and Reform. She was trying to figure out which of her various commitments she could sometimes miss and which she could not, because all the scheduling conflicted. Back in Boston, her 10-year-old stepdaughter was so sick with a stomach flu that her husband was trying to figure out who could get her to urgent care.
Pressley admitted that at times she was finding the public nature of her job overwhelming. On Jan. 20, she spoke at the third annual Boston Women’s March, where the crowds around her pressed in so closely that a friend accompanying her worried for Pressley’s safety. So many people, these days, wanted to kiss her, take a selfie with her. They told her she was beautiful; they told her they loved her leather jacket; sometimes they told her they loved the leather jacket, but really, baby, should she be wearing that in Congress? They told her they were praying for her. They were counting on her to change the world.
Already, the Squad was helping Pressley achieve one of her main campaign promises: to elevate progressive voices. Her social media following was still soaring, in part because Ocasio-Cortez, whose own feed reached legions, tagged her on that initial “Squad” post. During the negotiations over the budget and the border wall, Pressley and the other members of the Squad wrote, together, a “Dear Colleague” letter — essentially, an official statement of their position — demanding that “not another dollar” go to the Department of Homeland Security, which they characterized as operating inhumanely. Ordinarily, an initiative like that from four freshmen would hardly merit a passing reference, but The Daily Beast covered their effort with a striking photo illustration of Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley.
Pressley, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez were all first-year members on the Oversight and Reform Committee, which meant, through no choice of their own, that they were seated next to one another. Their proximity provided their fans (and detractors) on Twitter and Instagram endless opportunities to post images of the three of them together. During Michael Cohen’s testimony in February, Mashable ran a post listing the admiring comments that a photo of the three of them — each looking unimpressed — inspired. (“Imagine this sight staring you down,” one poster wrote.)
Pressley knew that the Squad members were less enmeshed than the public might have imagined. Though they texted one another frequently, they were not inseparable at caucus meetings, were not gathering regularly after hours. They did not consult on every piece of legislation.
Pressley often talks about how she was raised an only child — one of the hardest things about being in Congress was being surrounded by people all the time. She admired her friends in the Squad, but she was also accustomed to being an only — to going it alone.
By March, the rhythms of life in Congress were starting to feel predictable to most first-year members: the piercing tone signaling in their offices, at least once a day, that it was time again for votes (it was always time for votes); the frequent dashes, for some, over to the D.C.C.C. to make fund-raising calls, which the law forbids them to make in congressional offices; the morning breakfasts with potential donors; the late nights catching up on committee briefings; and, when possible, attendance at the weekly Democratic caucus meetings, where Pelosi usually speaks. The meeting gave pointers on messaging and covered the legislative priorities. Some people went to hear themselves talk; others went for the gossip or the face time or the bacon, which was usually in ample supply at a hot-breakfast buffet in the back of the meeting room in the Capitol’s basement.
As Spanberger headed to the weekly caucus meeting on March 6, her mind was mostly on what would happen directly afterward. She would be speaking at a Democratic caucus news conference about H.R.1, a bill nicely aligned with her branding on national security and her refusal to take corporate PAC money: The bill was intended to protect elections from foreign interference, expand voting rights and enhance campaign-finance transparency. The opportunity to speak about H.R.1 was a vote of confidence from the House leadership and a chance to show her constituents that she was making good on her promise to clean up Washington — to get things done.
What does it mean, exactly, to get things done in a Democratic House when the Republican-controlled Senate won’t bring almost any of its legislation to the floor? To Democratic leadership, it meant getting as much as possible passed in the House so they could then rail against Republicans for getting in the way of progress. House passage alone of H.R.1 did not necessarily put them much closer to tighter ethics rules or less corporate money in politics; it mostly meant creating the first really big bludgeon that Democrats could use to attack Republicans as obstructionists. Success, with a Republican-controlled Senate, meant passing something that might, in its messaging alone, help someone like Spanberger get re-elected, so that the House could hold its majority and keep Republican policy at bay.
While Spanberger was sitting in the caucus meeting, just outside the room her staff was having a moment of mild panic: Her communications director, 25-year-old Connor Joseph — fresh-faced, serious, deep-voiced — was hovering in the hallway when he realized he needed an updated version of the draft of remarks that Spanberger was going to give, and one with a bigger font size so that she would not need to wear her reading glasses. The right copy was in Spanberger’s office, a good eight-minute haul away. He got on the phone with a staff member, scrambling to meet halfway to grab the right draft. (“It’s definitely more ‘Veep’ than ‘West Wing’ around here,” said Representative Max Rose of New York, a friend of Spanberger’s.)
Inside the caucus meeting, unknown to most of the staff waiting outside, the members were having a tense, heated discussion on a subject wholly unrelated to H.R.1: how to respond to comments that Ilhan Omar had recently made at a Washington bookstore, in which she questioned the political power of the pro-Israel lobby that pushed “for allegiance to a foreign country,” a comment that some critics said summoned tropes about Jewish financial influence. Already, Omar had drawn furor for tweeting, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” in response to Republican criticism of her stance on Israel. At the caucus meeting, some members were pushing to pass a nonbinding resolution condemning anti-Semitism, a clear rebuke to Omar; there was some furor from members of the Congressional Black Caucus that the party was turning on Omar while having never seen fit to respond to the president with a nonbinding resolution condemning him for any one of the vile comments he had made. Pressley was close enough to Omar to hear firsthand from her about the onslaught of Islamaphobic messages and phone calls, along with death threats, she was receiving.
From the hallway outside the caucus meeting, the muffled voices inside sounded like the indistinct conversation background noise that actors make onstage — rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabaga — with the occasional spike in volume. Soon the representatives spilled out. There was Spanberger, in a royal blue blazer, looking like someone trying to appear extremely cool and confident and unruffled. A small ripple of nervous energy emanated from her as she searched for her communications director. “Hey, do you know where Connor is?” she asked.
The news conference began a few minutes later, with Spanberger, in front, pulling at the congressional pin she wears on a gold chain around her neck. The caucus chairman, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and Spanberger made the usual self-congratulatory comments (H.R.1 would “bring our democracy back to life for the people”), and then they were open for questions.
“Congressman Jeffries, your caucus is divided over Ilhan Omar’s remarks, at a time when the president is calling your investigations harassment,” the first question began. Spanberger rocked back a little on her heels; she seemed to be smiling, but what she was thinking was: Of course. Here we go again. Spanberger’s big moment was being upstaged by Omar’s big moment. It sometimes seemed to her that one member of the Squad or another was always shifting focus from where she hoped it would be.
At the frequent town halls she held in her district, she was spending more time than she wanted reassuring constituents that she did not support anti-Semitism, she was not a radical, she was not eager to take away their private health insurance. With her constituents, she was forever differentiating herself from the Squad; within her party, she sometimes felt she had to defend herself from them — specifically, Ocasio-Cortez. Just a few days before the H.R.1 news conference, Spanberger voted with 25 other moderates who bucked the party, for an amendment that would require gun sellers to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an illegal immigrant bought a gun. According to reports, Ocasio-Cortez had stood up in the caucus meeting to say that those who made that vote were putting themselves on a list for progressive activists. (Several members, it was reported, heard that as a veiled warning of primary challenges, which Ocasio-Cortez later denied.) This rankled Spanberger; she does not take well to threats. Nor did she think anyone to the left of her had a prayer of winning in her district.
She was, however, concerned about possible Republican challengers. She knew she did not have to make any major missteps to lose her next election, one of many the Democrats would need to win to maintain their majority; her opponents just had to use someone else’s against her, and that could be enough. By April, ads started running in Spanberger’s district, paid for by the American Action Network, a conservative nonprofit. It urged viewers to call Spanberger to demand that Omar be removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee, but its main goal seemed to be to run as many shots as possible of Spanberger’s face juxtaposed closely with Omar’s, as if to suggest they were inseparable allies.
When Ayanna Pressley speaks to young people, they often hear some version of the talk she delivered recently at a Catholic high school in Dorchester, Mass., a working-class and low-income neighborhood in Boston where her family lived until not long ago and where she keeps her district office.
“So, I’m going to share a story with y’all,” she told the group of mostly black and brown students assembled in the school library. She had their attention the moment she arrived, having run in, resplendent in a red dress, high-fiving students in the audience seated on the aisle. She had already told them a bit about her childhood in Chicago — that she grew up in public housing, that her father was incarcerated, but that she had, thanks to her mother, attended a stellar private school on scholarship, the only black girl in her class. Now the room quieted even more.
“So when I turned 13, my mother threw me a surprise birthday party. And of all things, it was a pool party — I didn’t even know how to swim.” A big laugh from the crowd. “And it was at the local Y, and I walked in, and I looked in the room, and there were my friends from the block. My friends from church. And my friends from school. And I thought, What was she thinking?” At the sight of her three separate worlds colliding, Pressley said, “I did what any 12-or-13-year-old would do, and I ran to the locker room and hid.” Her mother, she reported, told her to get back out there. “And I said to her, ‘I can’t go out there.’ And she said, ‘Why?’ And I said: ‘Because if I get in that pool, my hair is going to get wet. And it will betray me. And they will know the truth about me.’ ” Pressley paused to let the room take it in. “Now, here I was, a child who tested gifted, right? It’s not like I’m disconnected from reality or not bright. And so she says to me, ‘What will they know?’ And I said, ‘That I’m black.’ ” The room murmured as Pressley slowly strolled up the aisle. “And my mother leaned over” — Pressley broke off to bend down and ask a female student if she could touch her elbow, waited for the nod, then touched the elbow — “she touched my elbow. And she said, ‘Baby, they know.’ ”
Pressley was now able to integrate those three selves, she told the audience, to bring her whole self to Congress, to serving. But just because she had achieved a few things, she wanted them to know, that did not mean she was done. “I’m a work in progress,” she said. “Just because I’ve had some success in life and overcome some things doesn’t mean I’m not still overcoming.”
Pressley was often wary of generalizations about how her background defined her or her politics, if only because that line of reasoning flattened out the complexity of her experience. She had suffered the kind of hardships — poverty, sexual abuse — that could have put her, she often said, in a data set at high risk for suicide or even sex trafficking. But she had also been exposed to tremendous privilege. At the exclusive private school she attended in Chicago, she met one of her best childhood friends, the stepdaughter of Jan Schakowsky, now a congresswoman and a close ally of Pelosi’s. She had many sleepovers at her home and, for years, sent Father’s Day cards to Schakowsky’s husband, the political consultant Robert Creamer.
In May, with her staff, in the middle of a long meeting about the week’s agenda, Pressley paused to marvel about the talents of the women she hired — “all the nerds are on my staff” — a discussion that, it quickly became clear, was also a conversation with herself about a question that has been part of her consciousness since childhood: Where, exactly, does she fit in?
Pressley sometimes wondered: Did her colleagues hold it against her that she never finished college? When her mother lost her job, Pressley had to drop out of Boston University and started working in a hotel, pouring coffee and clearing plates at galas. That experience was one reason, just weeks into her tenure, she quickly wrote legislation, which passed in the House, to make sure government contract workers — cleaners, servers — were reimbursed for the time they were unpaid during the shutdown.
“When I was a candidate for the City Council, and then once I was running for Congress,” Pressley said, “there were some folks on the record that said, ‘She’s a show horse and not a workhorse,’ which is a thing I think I feel they do disproportionately to candidates of color. So, like, if you — I’m not saying this about myself — but if you have any charisma or if you connect with people, resonate with people, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is all the cult of personality, but this is, like, not a skill.”’ She went on: “I’m this easy retail candidate. I don’t feel like whatever it is that I’m bringing, the value I add, is quantified as a skill.”
The phrase “show pony” had come up a few days earlier in an article in Roll Call, with the headline “Democratic Female Freshmen Signal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Doesn’t Represent Them.” It featured Spanberger and Chrissy Houlahan, as well as three of their close colleagues in Congress — Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former C.I.A. analyst; Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy helicopter pilot; and Elaine Luria of Virginia, a former Navy commander. All five had flipped Republican-held seats. The actual news in the article was that the five women had formed a joint fund-raising fund. They had been brainstorming, as a team, since the beginning to determine how they could amplify one another’s work. One name that had gained some traction in the press was the Badasses, which made Spanberger cringe every time she heard it. It would never fly in her polite Southern district.
In the article, the women never mentioned Ocasio-Cortez by name, but it made clear that they felt that a disproportionate amount of attention was being paid to women who had won in districts that were traditionally Democratic, when Frontliners were the ones essential to the majority. “Slotkin described the first few months in Congress,” it went on, “as figuring out who are the ‘workhorses’ and the ‘show ponies.’ ” The us-versus-them tone of the article created a strong impression of whom Slotkin believed to be the show ponies. Some members of that group would go on to take enough indirect shots at the Squad in the press that their comments could be perceived more like a distancing strategy than a momentary indiscretion. (Slotkin said in a statement that her “comments were in no way directed toward Representative Pressley” or any of her fellow freshmen.)
Michelle Dorothy, Houlahan’s chief of staff, cringed when she saw the Roll Call headline. She picked up the phone and called Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff at the time, to make sure he realized that none of the women in the article had mentioned anyone by name; the driving force behind the article was not to gripe but to publicize this new fund-raising group. Chakrabarti hardly seemed concerned, and Dorothy felt she had done the right thing. But it didn’t occur to her to call Pressley’s office, and clearly, her team noticed the language. Show ponies, plural.
Among leadership, Spanberger has her fans, in no small part because she is calm and direct; unlike so many freshmen, male and female, she has never gone into their offices and wept, distraught about some foiled opportunity or a tough vote.
The daughter of a man who credits his time in the military for many of his opportunities, Spanberger grew up hearing that there was “no greater service than service to country.” While in the C.I.A., she sometimes traveled “under no known name,” leaving her family for days at a time, unable to give her husband a hint about where she was going. At the same time, she sometimes seemed surprised, in the years since, that some people considered her steely; those close to her knew that she was simply private.
But even Spanberger found herself surprisingly emotional in late June, as the House wrestled with how best to guarantee billions of dollars’ worth of emergency funding to help manage the immigration crisis at the border — young children being held in cages, shortages of basic resources like toothbrushes and soap, a system so dysfunctional and inhumane that clearly the government needed to act, and act fast, especially because all existing funding was about to run dry. The House had passed a funding bill that also guaranteed some humanitarian protections, but the Senate had passed a version with none of those protections. Because a majority of Democratic senators had voted for the Senate bill, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, was not willing to negotiate a compromise.
The Democrats in the House faced a choice: Vote on the Senate bill, or take a vote, as progressives hoped, that would allow the House to try to amend the Senate bill. The moderates were all in favor of the humanitarian aid, but the amendment Pelosi hoped to attach also cut funding to remedy a shortfall in payments to ICE employees. For moderates, that would play terribly in their districts: “My opponent voted against decent pay for law enforcement!”
On the House floor, Spanberger was hotly discussing with her colleague, Jason Crow of Colorado, a fellow moderate and former Army Ranger, whether the amendment had any chance of getting past McConnell; if not, by giving Pelosi a green light to move ahead, they would gain nothing and waste time (and also take a vote that could be used against them). “I literally do not understand,” she said. Was the party just posturing to make a point? Spanberger cannot abide drama; she calls herself a “passionate pragmatist.” The emoji she uses most often, since arriving in Congress, is the one with its head exploding.
Spanberger was in the middle of that conversation when a progressive friend wandered over: If you’re going to vote with the Republicans, the colleague said, you might as well be a Republican.
Spanberger felt something uncomfortable rising up in her. The whole conversation seemed to be reduced to the question of whether you cared about suffering children or not. Forget that she had three of her own; her mother had spent some of her earliest years in foster care, so the responsibility of the state weighed heavily on Spanberger. In the heat of the moment, she could feel her face turning red; she worried she was about to cry on the House floor, a sight that could be forever captured on C-Span. She started to pack up her backpack to try to gain some composure in the bathroom — then promptly realized that if you wanted to slip away, it was best not to make it too obvious by packing up your bag. “I do not want to talk,” she said to a congressional reporter who was waiting for her and walked away.
When the Senate bill prevailed, Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff at the time, sent out a tweet attacking two caucuses to which Spanberger belonged. They should really be called “the New Southern Democrats,” the tweet read, given that they seemed “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the ’40s.” He sent a follow-up tweet saying he was not so much accusing anyone of “racism” but of enabling a “racist system.” Another progressive congressman, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, turned to Twitter on the day of the vote to accuse the Problem Solvers Caucus of being “the Child Abuse Caucus.”
The bad-faith assumption took Spanberger’s breath away. When she had the opportunity to fire back, she did, in an interview with The Washington Post in August. She cast the fight for a second, more progressive bill as a time-wasting indulgence that could have delayed important funding for suffering children. “That week showed that for some people, ideology matters more than putting food in the mouth of a child,” she said. “And that was stunning to me.”
Pressley, who struggles with anxiety about flying, nonetheless resolved to join a delegation that was heading to the Mexico border in early July to inspect detention facilities. On July 1, she stood outside a facility in Clint, Tex., that she and her colleagues had just visited and delivered to the migrants in detention a message that she said came from her constituents: “That you are welcome here, and that we love you!” Protesters holding signs attacking ICE had gathered, but so had counterprotesters, and both sides were already yelling when Pressley began speaking. “Shut up!” someone screamed. Another person yelled, “Liar!” The people shouting were just a few feet away from Pressley. “Baby killer!” screamed others. “Photo opportunity!” yelled someone else. A man standing beside Pressley looked pained; he patted Pressley’s shoulder as she spoke. Pressley, in a floral dress, looked straight out and raised her voice over the crowd, straying from her prepared remarks. “Keep yelling!” she called out. “This is very appropriate. Vile rhetoric for vile actions.” She went on, “I am tired of the health and the safety, the humanity and the full freedoms of black and brown children being negotiated and compromised and moderated.”
During that trip, Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib toured two different sites, along with Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, making news with their disturbing accounts of what they learned — families exposed to brutal conditions with callous guards, women forced to drink water from toilets. While they were there, ProPublica broke news that postings on a Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents included sexually explicit, doctored images of Ocasio-Cortez.
Pressley returned home drained and started preparing for hearings that the Oversight Committee would hold on the treatment of thousands of people flowing over the border. Late in the evening on July 6, Groh called Pressley in Massachusetts to go over the coming week. She also flagged something upsetting she had just read in The New York Times. Pelosi had given an interview to Maureen Dowd in which she described the four members of the Squad as having, as Dowd put it, “made themselves irrelevant,” because they were the only four House members who did not vote in favor of the House’s emergency border-funding bill. Many progressives had seen the bill as the best possible compromise, but the members of the Squad refused to vote for a bill that continued to fund the detention centers.
In Dowd’s column, Pelosi dismissed the four of them as having “their Twitter world” but added that “they didn’t have any following. They’re just four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”
Even members who were sympathetic to the Squad’s outrage about the border might have received Pelosi’s comments with some relief. Moderates were desperate for a recalibration, a reminder to the public that the Squad did not define the party’s objectives or politics. Many swing voters found the topic of immigration, specifically the left’s moral outrage on the subject, aversive; the more that issue dominated the conversation, the harder the moderates’ re-election campaigns might be, and the more challenging it might be, some analysts argued, for a Democratic presidential candidate to gain traction in purple states.
When she read the column, Pressley reacted with confusion. “I don’t get it,” she told Groh. “What’s my move? I’m going on Joy Reid tomorrow. I don’t know how to react. What is this?” The night before the House bill came to the floor, she, along with many other progressives, negotiated into the evening, always, she believed, in good faith; she was clear that she could not go back to her voters and tell them that she voted for a bill that she feared would translate into more funding for keeping children and families in such conditions. She told Pelosi how excruciating it was for her to make the speaker’s job more difficult on such an urgent issue for Democrats, and the speaker seemed, to Pressley at least, to understand how important Pressley’s stance was to her district. Many of the progressives in the room were emotional, including Pressley. Before Pressley left that night, Pelosi gave her a hug.
Others in the party — moderates — voted against the party all the time without public shaming. Why, then, did Pelosi go after Pressley — or rather the four of them? What had Pressley missed? The speaker’s office did not make a lot of missteps, in Pressley’s opinion, so what was the goal? Pressley suggested that Groh call over to the speaker’s office — maybe the interview went sideways; sometimes that just happened. When Groh called, her contacts at the speaker’s office didn’t exactly claim journalistic malpractice. Just let it blow over, they advised.
It did not blow over.
“As a first-year congresswoman, what is your biggest struggle?” That question momentarily stumped Spanberger, who was seated on the stage of the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium on July 16, looking out at hundreds of high school girls, mostly from Virginia, many of color. Where to begin? The audience was attending an event called She Rocks the Hill to inspire students to get involved in politics. The student who asked the question looked expectantly at Spanberger and her fellow panelists, among them Representatives Lauren Underwood, the first black woman elected in her Illinois district, and Lori Trahan of Massachusetts.
Underwood, who is 33, paused, as if unsure how far to go, and then raised the microphone to her mouth. “So can we be real?” she started out. “This is such a crazy place, ladies.” It wasn’t even like high school, she told them. It was like middle school. There didn’t even have to be a reason for people to decide they didn’t like you. “You didn’t do anything, you didn’t say anything — it’s just, you get a vibe. And people act on it,” she said. “People don’t always have a reason to not trust you, to not want to work with you. So it’s very difficult to learn how to navigate this environment, where there’s inherent distrust.”
“And cliques,” Spanberger said.
“And cliques,” Underwood said.
“They’re called caucuses,” Trahan said.
At the panel, Spanberger was enjoying Underwood’s riff, able to laugh at whatever congressional dynamics seemed to stop progress in its tracks. But for most of that week, she had been agitated. Once again, the Squad was dominating the news. After Pelosi’s comments appeared in the Dowd column, tensions between the speaker and the Squad only escalated. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar fired back at Pelosi on Twitter (“Sorry not sorry,” Omar wrote in a tweet that also suggested that the speaker was just “salty” about who was wielding the real power to shift public sentiment).
At a subsequent caucus meeting, Pelosi told the assembled that if they had something to say, they should complain to her directly, adding, “Do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just O.K.” That same day, Ocasio-Cortez complained to a reporter about Pelosi’s “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color,” characterizing it as “disrespectful.” Some members, including some in the Congressional Black Caucus, thought Ocasio-Cortez had, outrageously, accused Pelosi of being a racist. Ocasio-Cortez’s relationship with the C.B.C. already had strains of tension: The Justice Democrats, a political-action committee that her chief of staff helped found, was threatening to primary several members, including some in the C.B.C. it deemed insufficiently progressive. Now Representative Gregory Meeks of New York, a prominent member of the C.B.C., rose to Pelosi’s defense, reminding Ocasio-Cortez in the press that “primaries go two ways.”
Finally, on July 14, Trump entered the fray: He sent out a series of tweets purporting to defend Pelosi, adding that the members of the Squad should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Three of the four women were born in the United States, and the fourth is a naturalized citizen.) The tweets were so offensive, so inflammatory, that Pelosi had no choice but to make peace with the women he attacked, or at least she had the perfect opportunity: She announced at the caucus meeting two days later that the party would vote on a nonbinding resolution to “condemn the president’s racist comments.”
Spanberger understood why the speaker thought the resolution was necessary, but as she saw it, the president had set a trap, and the party stepped into it. Over the past few days, she could imagine, the president was feeling disheartened that the speaker had been distancing the party from the Squad. So what did he do? He dropped a bomb, in the form of a wildly offensive tweet. What did the party do? It reacted just as he might have guessed it would, with a formal response, and the kind of self-righteous indignation — the president is a racist! — that alienated so many of her voters. Not only had he made the Squad once again the center of a news story, but he also created a situation in which the party went out of its way to support them, generating yet another news cycle.
Coming out of her office Monday afternoon, Spanberger caught a glimpse of the Squad on the TV in her waiting room, holding a news conference to respond to the president’s tweets. Tlaib and Omar were calling for the impeachment of the president. Spanberger paused for a moment, looked balefully at the screen and then kept moving. Her voters were not interested in impeachment; many of them were loyal to Trump. They just wanted the government to get past politics and show some kind of progress. To make it all worse, the National Defense Authorization Act had just passed in the House, and with it an amendment that Spanberger had sponsored with Representative Mark Meadows, a close Trump ally. The legislation would set aside funding to root out the downloading of child pornography by Defense Department contractors. This was legislation she was proud of, that her voters could love, that would most likely even pass and take effect. But amid all the hubbub, who would notice?
Inside the Longworth Building, four days after Trump sent those tweets, Ayanna Pressley’s office looked like a crime scene. Yellow tape lined a bit of hallway outside the office door, reading “Act Now/Stop Gun Violence.” Inside the office, the tension was palpably high. The staff member behind the desk, a young woman, who, like Pressley, had worked three jobs at a time before she was 21, felt a flash of anxiety each time the office door opened. She was arriving every morning to hundreds of hateful phone messages; staff members had to listen to every one of them so security could assess the seriousness of any death threats. Some of the messages started the same way: “You tell that black bitch. ... ” Pressley’s legislative director popped out to the front. “Did you hear back from security yet?” she asked a staff member. Her tone had a sharpness unusual for her. Groh was starting her mornings looking at mug shots of possible threats the Capitol Police had identified.
When Pelosi called out the Squad weeks earlier in the Dowd column, Pressley refrained from weighing in on Twitter; mostly, she wanted it all to go away. But a week after the column ran, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, chimed in, clearly delighting in the conflict: “Major Meow ????Mashup with @SpeakerPelosi,” Conway tweeted, tagging the four freshman congresswomen. Later that day, Pressley responded in kind with a tweet that veered from the inspiring tone more typical of her feed: “Oh hi Distraction Becky. Remember that time your boss tore babies from their mothers’ arms and threw them in cages? Yeah take a seat and keep my name out of your lying mouth.” Senior members in the party cringed — surely this kind of language was beneath a House member. But if Conway wanted a mudslinging fight on social media, that was a game Pressley was pretty sure she could win. Within hours, “Distraction Becky” was trending on Twitter.
On July 13, Pressley spoke at Netroots Nation, a large national conference for progressives. At the time, the Squad was fielding blows from all sides. Just a day earlier, Meeks had all but threatened to primary Ocasio-Cortez; that day, Maureen Dowd published a second column critical of the Squad. And late the night before, the Democratic caucus’s official feed included a tweet picking a fight with Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff.
At the conference, Pressley, seated beside Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress, encouraged women to feel emboldened to tell the truth when they came into power. “I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table,” Pressley said. “This is the time to shake the table.” Her voice rose. “Because if you’re going to come to this table, and for all of you that have aspirations of running for office, for whatever lived experience and identity that you represent, if you are not prepared to come to that table and to represent that voice, don’t come. Because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice,” she said to rising cheers. “We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. And if you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up, because we need you to represent that voice.”
The audience applauded wildly, but others heard something other than empowerment. Dave Weigel of The Washington Post, live-tweeting at the event, suggested that Pressley was “seeming to hit back at criticism from CBC et al,” to which a fellow tweeter — not a journalist — replied, “She just went #uncletom on the #CBC.” Pressley jumped into the conversation with that person: “Just stop it,” she wrote. “I said no such thing.” She responded to Weigel with a tweet stating that his assessment was false, explaining that she was trying to encourage all people to bring the fullness of their lived experience to their work.
Pressley had never felt closer to — more protective of — the members of the Squad than she did during those openly combative weeks of July, when instead of feeling supported by some other members, she was almost sure she was sensing something else. Colleagues were avoiding eye contact, giving off an air of chilliness in the elevator.
The Squad versus Pelosi: It was threatening to be the defining story of the 116th Congress. Schakowsky sent Pressley an affectionate text and volunteered to talk to her about ways they could work against the media’s desire to escalate the story. When they finally spoke in the cloakroom, Pressley admitted what had been perfectly clear to Schakowsky just from observing the woman she had known since she was an 8-year-old firecracker: Pressley was feeling low.
Her team felt vulnerable ever since that first Dowd column appeared. When the president finally unleashed those tweets, the day after the Netroots conference, they were unnerved, but not surprised, by the torrent of hate that followed.
Various congressmen were already exiting the House floor, loosening their ties, when Abigail Spanberger came speeding into the Capitol around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 16. There had been some confusion about timing; votes were running later than expected. Spanberger