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Bhavini Patel ramps up Congressional bid to replace Mike Doyle

Patel for PA

Bhavini Patel may not have posted big fundraising numbers or hosted large public gatherings — at least not yet. But she says her bid to fill the Pittsburgh Congressional seat long held by Mike Doyle is laying a foundation by connecting with voters — and by touting her own connections to the region.

“In many ways, Pittsburgh's story is my story,” Patel said. “It's this idea of having access to opportunity, having access to jobs and being able to earn a dollar and do that work with integrity and dignity.”

It is also an immigrant story, one that shows how a region long defined by immigration from eastern Europe is changing. Patel’s mother came to Monroeville in the 1990s, and launched a food truck service that served Indian food around the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Working at age 13 alongside her mother, Patel herself “served a lot of customers” and “some of them eventually became my professors at Pitt.” She was the first in her family to attend college, and she did it in a big way, heading to the University of Oxford to study international relations after graduating from Pitt. Until launching her campaign, she ran beamdata, a firm that sought to use technology to encourage civic participation by helping constituents connect with elected officials.

“It's one thing to know Pittsburgh values, but I think it's a completely different thing to live them,” said Patel. “And that's essentially what this campaign is about.”

The Edgewood resident is already negotiating the treacherous landscape of a tumultuous political year: A new Congressional district map handed down Wednesday by the state Supreme Court draws her just outside the 12th District seat. It also drew out state Rep. Summer Lee, who also hopes to replace Doyle. But such dislocations aren’t uncommon: A similar court-mandated redistricting in 2018 also created headaches for several candidates, but the law allows campaigns to continue, and the political impacts of being drawn outside a district are often minimal.

And at this stage in the campaign, at least, Patel is foregrounding her roots in the region, touting herself as a tech-savvy small business owner who can help the region continue its transition into a post-industrial economy with a more diverse population.

Patel, at age 28, would be among the youngest members of Congress — North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn is 26 — and would be only its second woman of Indian descent, after Pramila Jayapal.

But Patel arguably is not campaigning as far to the left as Jayapal, or for that matter, as rivals in the primary contest state Rep. Summer Lee and University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson. Her campaign foregrounds not so much a frontal challenge to the system as a belief that the right policies can make it work.

Patel describes herself as “a woman of color” who is a progressive “partly because of who I am and how I experience life.” But she said “it’s important to be a coalition builder and deliver solutions that build the party forward and can help us get things passed. It's always important to challenge ideas because if we're not challenging things, it gets stagnant. But I simultaneously think we need to be solutions oriented while we're doing that.”

Asked to cite a top legislative priority, for example, she cites the need to implement President Joe Biden’s landmark $1.3 trillion infrastructure package.

“Passing it is step one,” she said of the legislation. “But the bigger job I think is going to be that we can be advocates and make the case for why we should be getting the money … and the projects that we prioritize with that funding.”

And she walks a middle path on issues like fracking for natural gas, saying that while she espouses clean tech and renewable energy, “It's important to recognize that we are very much an energy state and that we need to be responsible how we have conversations around jobs and environment. I think that it would be a false choice that we have to pick between the two.”

Patel was the last of the candidates to enter the race: Dickinson and Lee jumped into their races last year, as did Squirrel Hill attorney Steve Irwin. And since her bid launched with a Post-Gazette story about her bid in January, she has held few public gatherings, even as Lee and Irwin have held office openings in recent days. While her campaign is raising money, her committee formed too recently for it to have reported its financial activities yet.

But Patel, who says she waited to launch her bid until after doing the "due diligence" the decision required, says that public events are coming. For now, she said, her schedule has been packed with private meetings involving a range of Democratic interest groups: labor leaders, advocacy groups, and members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, whose endorsement Patel plans to seek this spring.

Patel is no stranger to that kind of networking: She's long been active in the party, andsought an appointment to a vacant county council seat three years ago.

“We've been reaching out to labor organizations and talking to voters [and] municipal leaders, really trying to get a sense of what are the grassroots localized issues that people are facing,” she said.

Patel herself serves on the borough council of Edgewood, a job she says involves “a lot of sewer issues [and] constituent issues. It’s great because you get a sense of the day-to-day concerns people are experiencing. … I've seen firsthand the value of having a congressperson that wants to learn and understand the challenge that you're experiencing and how they can be an ally in the work that you're doing.”

So far, that has reaped some support from local officials in Edgewood and nearby communities. But Patel says that the ongoing discussion is also a goal in itself. “Any election is having conversations with people,” she said. “So that's exactly the approach that we're taking.”

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.