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Progressive Summer Lee Defeats Incumbent Paul Costa In 34th State House District

Summer Lee for PA

Summer Lee of Swissvale has won the Democratic primary as a newcomer to the 34th State House District in a wide victory against incumbent Paul Costa.

It’s a win for local progressives who have set their sights on unseating Democrats they say have become listless from multiple terms in office.

A little after 9:30 p.m., Lee claimed victory at her election night party at the Map Room Grill and Bar in Regent Square.“If your politicians are not serving you, get rid of them," Lee said. "And if you don’t have anyone to vote for, run.”

Costa conceded just a few minutes later, telling the audience at his party, “They ran a very aggressive campaign in getting people out to vote, they did a very good job in that. I thought we did too, but obviously they did a lot better.”

Lee is likely headed to Harrisburg next year; she will not face a Republican challenger in the general election in November. She will become one of the few African-American women in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Summer Lee’s supporters have been vocal on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #SummerIsComing, a play on HBO show Game of Thrones’ well-known slogan “Winter Is Coming.” The phrase is a vote of confidence for a candidate challenging a local political dynasty. And her supporters believe, like winter in Westeros, she’s a long-awaited phenomenon.

"This win means everything we've been trying to say: trust black women, elect black women," said Marita Garrett, the first black female mayor of Wilkinsburg and a Lee supporter. "By Summer shattering the glass and becoming the first black female representative from this area, it's just the beginning."

Daniel Moraff, a campaign organizer for Lee and a member of Pittsburgh's Democratic Socialists of America (D.S.A.), echoed that sentiment. "This isn't about winning in the fourth quarter," he said, addressing the crowd that packed the tiny bar. "This is about lighting a fire and keeping that fire burning."

Lee arrived on the local politics scene in 2017, when she led a write-in campaign to elect another Woodland Hills alumna, Akeya Kester, to the school district’s board of education. Lee says she was disturbed by alleged violence against students by the high school’s principal and future head football coach.

Kester won the election, and shortly after an organizer for the Pittsburgh chapter of the D.S.A. approached Lee about running for office, according to The New Yorker.

Lee is one of three State House candidates in southwestern Pennsylvania endorsed by the Pittsburgh D.S.A. and by Our Revolution, a progressive political action committee with origins in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Lee’s campaign against Costa represents a wave of progressive Democrats challenging what they call the moderate establishment this election season. It echoes those throughout the country that have seen left-of-center political newcomers secure seats in state and federal government.

And a record number of women and people of color are running for office this year across the country, many spurred by the 2016 presidential election and a weariness of relying on longtime officials who have experienced few challenges.

Lee, who campaigned for Bernie Sanders and then for Hillary Clinton shortly after her graduation from Howard University School of Law in 2015,advocates for a host of leftist causes: criminal justice reform, free education, universal healthcare, renewable energy, and a “fair share tax” which would enact a higher tax rate for the wealthy.

Lee is also a proponent of a $15 minimum wage, having worked as a paid organizer in the “Fight for 15” movement.

She has criticized incumbent Paul Costa for being a moderate, pointing to his revitalization efforts in the area as gentrification, or the geographic pushing out of lower-income residents-of-color in the region, says The New Yorker. And she says she’s deeply concerned by how fracking has plagued District 34’s communities of color by skyrocketing asthma rates.  

As a result, Lee says, Braddock has experienced rapid population loss. There was a population decline of nearly 26 percent between 2000 and 2010. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 75 percent of Braddock residents are non-white. Thirty percent of people live below the poverty line.

“We need to make sure we put some support structures in, " Lee said at the final candidate debate. "It’s not enough to come into Braddock. Include Braddock. We don’t need fish. We need someone to teach us how to fish. We need access to the pond so we can be part of the building of our own communities.”

Costa has rarely faced a primary challenger as threatening as Summer Lee during his two decades in office. Costa was elected to the House of Representatives District 34 in 1998, having also served as the president of the Wilkins Township Board of Commissioners, as the vice chair of the Wilkins Township Democratic Committee, and in the Allegheny County Protonotary’s Office.

Some of Costa's political stances have angered the left. He’s supported abortion rights, but only in instances of rape or to preserve the health of the mother. “But not for birth control. You should be adult enough to watch yourself,” he told the Post-Gazette in November. He voted for Stand Your Ground laws in Pennsylvania, which are adamantly opposed by Lee.

He’s also championed relaxed liquor laws that expand store hours and allow supermarkets to sell beer and wine. It’s a move that Costa promoted-- along with both successful and failed redevelopment efforts-- during the final candidate debate against Lee. On his website, Costa highlighted infrastructure and transportation improvements, public safety, and higher education access as his major successes.

Lee has emphasized youth — on Election Day she wrote on Facebook that her campaign begins and ends with young people — but for Costa, adults and seniors take priority. He’s focused on supporting small businesses, prescription assistance for seniors, and financial security for the elderly.

The Costa family has been deeply rooted in southwestern Pennsylvania politics for decades, beginning with late patriarch Jay Costa, Sr., former Allegheny County treasurer.

But that family dynasty has been threatened by progressive candidates. In November, Mikhail Pappas, a candidate for district judge in the East End backed by the D.S.A., unseated Ronald Costa, a cousin of Paul Costa and incumbent of 24 years.

Another cousin, Dom Costa, faced D.S.A.-endorsed Sara Innamorato in the Democratic primary in the 21st state house district.

Paul Costa’s brother Jay is a Democratic State Senator of 21 years and the Democratic leader. He is up for reelection in 2020.

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.