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'We don’t have time anymore to wait': Summer Lee announces Congressional bid

Summer Lee campaign

State Rep. Summer Lee, a champion of the progressive movement that has remade the face of western Pennsylvania politics in just a few election cycles, hopes to carry out a similar transformation at the federal level. She is announcing her campaign for Congress today, seeking the seat that outgoing U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle will vacate after 14 terms.

“We are facing so many different intersecting crises — our environmental crisis, our labor movement hasn’t grown to capacity, we’re looking at a housing crisis and economic injustice, we’re looking at racial injustice,” she told WESA in an exclusive interview. “As someone who has centered my politics, my policies [and] my organizing around these issues, it felt like we don’t have time anymore to wait. And it’s so important that as new leadership comes in, we seize this opportunity for it to be bold.”

Lee grew up in North Braddock and Rankin and attended Woodland Hills schools before graduating from Penn State and the Howard University School of Law. But she said her campaign would prioritize the issues and communities that surrounded her while she grew up.

“When you are Black and brown and poor and you live in under-resourced communities, you know environmental justice and the labor movement go hand in hand,” she said. “Economic justice and racial justice go hand-in-hand. Educational equity and health care justice, housing justice — these things go hand in hand. Those are the issues that have been the center of my work. That will not change.”

Lee joins another progressive Black candidate with a background in law, University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson, in the race. Other candidates are likely to enter now that Doyle has announced his retirement plans. Lee’s own interest in the seat has been widely rumored for months, and her decision to run was seen as increasingly likely even before questions about Doyle mounted last week. While her announcement follows by one day Doyle’s retirement, she said she would have launched her bid even if he stayed in.

“I was absolutely intending to still run” if Doyle stayed in, she said. “Primaries are important because it keeps people engaged [and ensures] that we’re not just getting one perspective.”

She praised Doyle for “not falling for the glitz and glamor that can come with being in Washington but instead being very true to his hometown approach."

But she said it is time for a change.

If elected, Lee would be the first Black female Congressional representative from Pennsylvania. While she said her mission is to represent working people from all backgrounds, she added: “It’s astounding when you consider that one of the original 13 colonies has yet to have a Black woman represented in the federal government.”

Lee, who said that the battles in Harrisburg and Washington are intertwined, said she hadn’t decided whether to run for election for her state legislative seat as well as for Congress next year.

“It’s actually not something that I've given maybe as much consideration as I need to,” she said, noting that the Congressional race had just been transformed by Doyle’s decision to retire. “It's a lot to think about, and I will definitely take my time thinking about it.”

Lee rose to local prominence in early 2018, when she toppled longtime state Rep. Paul Costa for a state House seat that included both prosperous communities such as Regent Square and Forest Hills, and hard-pressed Monongahela and Turtle Creek valley communities such as Braddock and Rankin. In doing so, Lee beat a longtime pol with one of Pittsburgh’s best-known political names, running on a platform that called for racial and environmental justice for struggling communities after years of industrial pollution.

Lee has in fact sometimes run afoul of some area labor unions by criticizing the natural gas industry, as well as the remnants of heavy industry that remain in her district — which contains US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock — and elsewhere.

“It’s our job to continue to reach out" to workers threatened by a transition to a greener economy and ensure they have a place in it, she said. "[But] what we can't continue to do is say that a Braddock, that those people are just going to have to deal with” the environmental consequences of the status quo.

And while the Republican-controlled state legislature routinely frustrates Democratic initiatives, Lee said that a strong voice can get a hearing even in Harrisburg. As evidence, she cites her role in a 2020 act of civil disobedience on the House floor, where Black legislators seized the rostrum to demand action on police accountability bills. The move was intended to spur action on a number of bills that included the creation of a “red flag” database to help local police departments identify officers with troubling backgrounds. Within week, the measures cleared the legislature and were signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“Ideas are like seeds,” Lee said. "If it’s an idea that we’ve planted … we’ll see it eventually. And that’s how I feel about our progressive ideas: To win these big, bold ideas, we’re going up against a system that was created to keep us out.”

Indeed, Lee has also been an architect for a broader movement outside the state Capitol. Her UNITE PAC — and its joint effort with other progressive groups this year to support a slate of judicial candidates who favor criminal-justice reforms — has helped to create a progressive political infrastructure outside the local Democratic Party’s traditional apparatus. Candidates on the progressive “Slate of 8” judicial slate, for example, fared about as well as candidates endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

That movement has helped elect other progressives like County Councilors Liv Bennett and Bethany Hallam, as well as Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayoral nominee. With the movement behind her, Lee herself has taken on much of the local power structure and won. Her 2020 re-election bid was snubbed by the local Democratic committee’s endorsement process — highly unusual for an incumbent — and her opponent was backed by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and unions whose members have worked in the fracking and natural gas industry. But Lee crushed her Democratic rival by a three-to-one margin.

Lee says the party as a whole could learn something from that history. Political observers expect Democrats to lose control of the House next year, a prospect that would make it even harder to advance a progressive agenda. But rather than scale back that agenda, Lee said, “if we pursue the agenda we’re talking about, we lessen the likelihood of losing" by energizing voters.

Lee’s 2020 campaign was endorsed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist stalwart and former Presidential candidate. She said she couldn’t speak for Sanders or progressive Congressional members of “The Squad,” such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, about whether they would support her this time, but she said “I hope to earn their support and the support of others,” including those “from a different political perspective than me because that's a coalition that we're going to need to win in a district like this.”

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.