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Progressive Champion Lee Draws Challenger In Democratic Primary

Chris Roland with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, in a Facebook photo posted from Roland's campaign kickoff

State Rep. Summer Lee, whose 2018 campaign has helped inspire progressive Democrats across western Pennsylvania, has drawn a primary challenger from a self-described moderate who emphasizes his pragmatism.  

“I really enjoy public service,” said 35-year-old Democrat Chris Roland, who has served as a North Braddock Borough Councilman for three terms. “Being able to get money to tear down houses, pave roads, build new playgrounds – just being able to help people.”

Roland works as a parks supervisor for Allegheny County’s Round Hill Park in Elizabeth, and touts his work on the borough council, which he said has not raised taxes during his tenure. If elected to the state’s 34th legislative district, he said, “I’ll be making sure [the community’s] voice is heard, making sure that their fair share of taxes that were paid out is coming back.”

The district includes hard-pressed communities in the Monongahela and Turtle Creek valleys, as well as parts of Pittsburgh and some eastern suburbs. But to represent it, Roland will first have to beat Lee, a progressive champion and the first African-American female elected to state office from Allegheny County.

Lee won her seat in 2018, beating incumbent Paul Costa by a whopping margin of roughly two-to-one. She did it with an unapologetically progressive campaign, one that stressed concerns like police accountability and environmental justice. She’s remained outspoken on those issues in office, at times ruffling feathers within her own party,  while advancing legislation on issues like overhauling police use-of-force procedures, a cause that gained new relevance after the police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Antwon Rose.

A political committee established by Lee, UNITE PAC, has also provided financial help to other progressive Democrats in county races this year.

Lee’s supporters were quick to see Roland’s bid as a sign of backlash from the party’s more conservative wing. Lee herself tweeted about her opponent, without mentioning him by name, over the holiday weekend. She said her victory had “SHOOK W. PA” and sparked a movement dedicated to racial justice and environmental concerns like natural-gas drilling. “Of course they won’t go into the sunset quietly,” she said of those who opposed her. “My opponent will be WELL funded by folks who want to frack in my town.”

Fracking — the practice of drilling for natural gas by using pressurized liquid to shatter deep layers of shale — is already proving to be a divisive issue for Democrats. And it is not an abstract issue in District 34, where US Steel has discussed drilling for natural gas beneath the site of its Edgar Thomson steel works. Roland said that North Braddock officials had never gotten a clear signal about whether drilling would ever take place there. In the meantime, he hailed the company’s pledge this past summer to spend $200 million on pollution controls at the company’s Clairton Coke Works.

“I know people want to ban it,” Roland said. “I don’t know if the [Republican-controlled] state legislature would allow that,” he said. And in any case, he said he thought the more immediate concern for many voters was in limiting the places where drilling takes place — like in densely populated areas or near schools.

Roland’s brother, William, is a registered lobbyist for Peoples Gas. But Chris Roland said voters shouldn’t make too much of his family ties: “Peoples doesn’t produce gas. They purchase it and put it in a safe manner into people’s homes. … they just transfer gas from one site to the next.”

In general, Roland said he’d take a less confrontational approach on some hot-button issues than Lee has. He noted that his borough, along with four others nearby, was studying the potential impact of consolidating police departments, and said that such decisions required input from groups including the Fraternal Order of Police. “I think when you make such a strong opinion, I don’t think they’ll be as willing to sit down and have a conversation with you about what their views are,” he said.

Mostly, though, he focused on a desire to bring investment into the district. Noting a newly installed “splash pad” built in North Braddock, he said, “When you see kids up there playing, and we were able to do that just through hard work and following up … you really see the reward.

“Going to Harrisburg and working with leadership … the ability to bring money back to do projects is huge,” he added.

Party insiders say that Roland is positioned to pick up support from groups like building trades unions, whose members have worked on gas-related projects like the ethane “cracker plant” being built in Beaver County.  Roland said that representatives of the building trades and other unions were well-represented at his campaign kickoff, which took place Nov. 21 at a North Braddock golf club. Roland said he had no official endorsements to announce, although Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald showed up at the Roland campaign kickoff event. 

“We’re just two weeks into the conversation,” he said.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.