The exchange last weekend summed up the reticence black voters in South Carolina have about Warren. Just 6 percent of African Americans in the state support her, according to a January Fox News poll. Warren’s policy-heavy candidacy has yet to resonate with black Americans who are broadly wary of government and the racial biases that exist within it.
Enter Pressley, who rocketed to political fame as a member of “the squad” of first-term Democratic congresswomen. The 45-year-old, who goes back more than a decade with Warren, worked to persuade black voters in South Carolina to trust that Warren’s expansive view of government action can make a tangible difference in their lives.
It is not an easy sell. But Pressley is arguably Warren’s greatest asset on the trail. She’s visited six states for Warren, most recently hitting Iowa for the first time in the final days before the caucus where she’s been greeted enthusiastically by largely white audiences. Her commanding presence was first apparent in November, when she asked Warren to step aside so she could address black protesters drowning out the senator’s speech on the historical impact of black washerwomen in the labor movement.
And it was on full display during her three-day swing through South Carolina, her first visit to the state as a surrogate.
Pressley has taken the image of Warren as a wonkish Harvard Law professor and tried to turn it on its head. Often surrogates put their candidate on a pedestal: Joe Biden as the only candidate equipped to be president “on Day One,” or Sanders as the leader of a political revolution.
Pressley presents Warren as an equal.
“I’m not interested in a savior, I want a partner,” Pressley said to a packed auditorium at the historically black Benedict College. “And that is who Elizabeth is.”
The Warren who Pressley has worked alongside is “an even better student” than a professor, she told black voters in South Carolina. “I know that Elizabeth Warren sees me, I know that she sees us.”
Pressley repeated the savior and student refrains at brunches, in auditoriums and in intimate conversations attended predominantly by black women. In every setting the black women in attendance were plainly charmed and transfixed. Pressley’s alto voice rarely wavers even when she raises it, and she speaks in a cadence that keeps listeners locked in.
Some people at the campaign events seemed drawn in as much by their curiosity about Pressley as to learn about the candidate herself. Pressley is bald now, a result of the autoimmune disease alopecia which she revealed a little more than two weeks ago in a video speaking directly to the camera. Her Senegalese twists used to be part of her personal and political identity — now her baldness is, too.
When one admiring voter asked Pressley about her ambitions for higher office, Pressley gave a standard answer at first — she’s only focused on the matter at hand, helping Warren win the primary and beating Donald Trump. But then she added, “Be patient with me, y’all. I just revealed that I’m bald a week ago.”
Over Pressley’s three days in South Carolina, dozens of black female voters who spoke to POLITICO said they would take a closer look at Warren after hearing Pressley. Renee Jye, 55, switched from Biden to Warren on the spot, and said she’d volunteer for the senator.
But at nearly every event where Pressley took questions, she was asked about the price tag or the plausibility of Warren’s policies. At one gathering in North Charleston, Ruth Jordan, 60, said she wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to keep her current health insurance under Warren’s plan. “Confusion has occurred throughout the community,” Jordan said.
Pressley cut her off. “It’s a misinformation campaign, okay,” she said.
Taking a step back, Pressley explained to Jordan: “I have this debate about Elizabeth a lot.”
“People will say, ‘It sounds good, you know, I just want to know how do we get there?'” Pressley said. “But that is a normal response when you’re hearing something you’ve never heard before — or when you have historically experienced broken hearts, from broken promises, from broken systems. We have to restore people’s faith in government and what’s possible.”
But time and polling are not on Warren’s side, especially if she performs poorly in Iowa or New Hampshire. Presented with the math — Warren is at 7 percent nationally with black voters, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll — Pressley’s mouth curves into her signature smirk, and her eyes focus.
“I’m not mad at the polls, I don’t put much stock in them,” Pressley said in an interview. “But what I know about Elizabeth is that she’s always run like an underdog. So if the polls said that she was polling at 80 percent with black voters, she would still run like she’s an underdog.”
There’s a reason Pressley doesn’t trust polls: One survey had her down by 13 points heading into the primary election in 2018, but she beat the incumbent Democrat, Mike Capuano, by 17 points. She became the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House.
Pressley was raised in Chicago by a single mother, Sandra, a tenant rights activist. As Pressley tells it, she fought to ensure her only child’s future wasn’t determined by her zip code. Her father was addicted to opioids and in and out of prison, but “my father was no criminal,” Pressley said. “Prison should be the last stop.” Her neighborhood did not escape redlining, a discriminatory federal policy that made home mortgages and insurance difficult or impossible to obtain in many low-income communities of color.
“There’s so many reasons why we could have felt powerless, hopeless, small,” Pressley said.
Moments after the sudden death of NBA star Kobe Bryant, Pressley’s mind turned to her mother, who died 11 years ago at age 63 after battling leukemia. It was the first time all weekend Pressley had to pause before addressing a crowd.
“She would take me to vote with her in every election. And then after we would vote together, pull that curtain, and walk out, I would stand a little bit taller,” Pressley said to a group of Warren volunteers.
“We’re powerful, Soyini (pronounced So-we-knee),” Pressley’s mother would say, calling her daughter by her middle name.
Pressley may believe in “big structural change,” as Warren’s slogan goes. But unlike the other members of the progressive “squad,” she has worked in the halls of Congress her entire career. After starting as an intern in the House, Pressley went on to work for then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for roughly 11 years.
As Pressley sat in the back room of a Charleston field office, holding a pillow on her lap, her eyes welled up and her voice trembled when she recalled her mother, who exposed her to politics firsthand throughout her life.
Pressley’s defense of Warren’s policies isn’t just about electing her friend. She made clear throughout the weekend it’s a personal mission, inspired by her mother, to show that government can work equitably for black Americans.
“Are you trying to make me cry?” Pressley asked during the interview when the subject of her mother came up. She took a breath. “I could never give up on my community [or] the capacity of people or humanity, because it would be the ultimate betrayal of my mom.”