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What A Win For Democratic Socialists Means For Candidates In Harrisburg

Democratic Socialists of America
Local party co-chair Adam Shuck represents the Democratic Socialists of America at a candlelight vigil in Schenley Park in August 2017.

There's a word repeated over and over again Tuesday night at the election parties for candidates Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato

"People," Lee said. "We brought people out."

Innamorato expressed a similar sentiment, saying "With hard work, with people, with a vision, you can achieve this."

Both women won democratic primaries in southwestern Pennsylvania for the state House of Representatives, unseating incumbents and cousins who have long held their respective districts. And both women are likely headed to Harrisburg; neither candidate faces a Republican challenger in the general election this fall. 

Lee and Innamorato were endorsed and heavily assisted by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that promotes progressive values like universal health care and reproductive justice. They're part of a wave of progressive candidates across Pennsylvania who found success on Tuesday. 

It's a victory for progressives wary of listless, moderate Democrats who have clung to their seats with little challenge to their tenures, according to the DSA.

"The establishment told us that we were too progressive and that we were asking for too much," said Jessica Benham, the local DSA political action commitee communications director. "But the election of both Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee have proved that socialists can win."

Democratic socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders called Innamorato to congratulate her on her win. 

"He just said, 'Congratulations, it looks like you ran one hell of a race.' I said 'Thank you, I look forward to moving the progressive agenda on the state and federal level,'" Innamorato said. 

The campaigns began early, said Benham. Lee's fight for District 34 started with her efforts organizing for a write-in campaign on her local school board election in 2017. Innamorato had previously established an organization that assisted other women interested in running for office.

Arielle Cohen, co-chair of Pittsburgh DSA's political action committee, said the campaigns were truly grassroots, with over 500 volunteers knocking on at least 30,000 doors in the months leading up to the election. 

"People were jumping in, in addition to canvassing, doing data entry, childcare work, doing research. So on every level, folks were throwing into this race," Cohen said. 

Momentum built over time, Bernham said, and she believes it's sustainable.

"Sara and Summer are both responsive to their communities," she said. "These campaigns won because both Sara and Summer talked to people, knocking on doors, listening to people, and treating people with respect."

They also won, Innamorato said, because of a general, wide-sweeping platform that eschewed a hyper-local agenda for one that's more nationally focused.

"In order to get people to turn out in droves, you have to provide a vision about what you are working for, rather than by focusing on incremental policy changes," she said. 

The movement is about representation, Cohen said. Summer Lee will likely become one of a handful of women of color in the state house of representatives, as well as what supporters call the first African American woman to win a state House race in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

"Black women are taking control and building power," Cohen said. "We're changing the idea of who should have power, and I think there's going to be a lot of people who come behind them and are inspired."

That's attractive to voters, Benham said. 

"When people hear what Democratic Socialists stand for, they like it," Benham said. "Working people are ready for real change, progressive policies and a society that works for all of us, not just a select few."

Larry Ceisler, principal for Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, and who has also consulted democratic politicans, is more skeptical. Primaries are inherently structured in favor of far-left and far-right sects within each party, he said.

"Primaries have become the domain of the right wing in the Republican party and the left wing in the Democratic party," he said.  

That made it hard for moderate incumbents Paul Costa and Dom Costa, members of a political family dynasty who lost Tuesday to Lee and to Innamorato, respectively. The moderate base just can't be energized in a primary election in the same way, Ceisler argued. 

Ceisler supports legislationrecently introduced in the state legislature that would allow independent voters to cast ballots in open primaries, which Ceisler said could dilute some of that partisan energy and provide more support for moderate Democrats and Republicans.

Democratic socialism wasn't the only driving force behind Lee's and Innamorato's wins, Ceisler said; being women helped, too.

"The Harrisburg we see now is not the Harrisburg we'll see in 2019," said Innamorato. "You are going to see the gender scales balance a lot. You'll see the median age of a legislator decrease significantly.  And I think we're going to see a lot of people who have wanted to be progressive champions but feel dejected, and they will feel energized."

Lee and Innamorato could leverage their progressive politics, Ceisler said, even appealing to far-right Republicans. 

"When you're in a minority, it's hard to get things accomplished," he said. "When you have one party running the show, there's not much you can do. But it really comes down to personality and ideology. You can be the most left-leaning member of the legislature, but if you have a decent personality, you can find your personality match across the aisle with the most right-wing member of the legislature."

He pointed to a collaboration between state Sens. Daylin Leach, a progressive Democrat, and Mike Folmer, a Republican, to pass a bill establishing a medical marijuana program in 2015. 

Ceisler likened the DSA to the Republican Tea Party.

"They will find what their niche is," Ceisler said. "Even though they have this title, I don't think they are necessarily any different [than other progressives]."

UPDATED: 1:58 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, 2018 to reflect Larry Ceisler's current and former roles. 

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.