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Few policy differences in 12th Congressional District debate, but contrasts in style, philosophy

The U.S. Capitol building is seen before sunrise on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March. 21, 2022.
Gemunu Amarasinghe
The U.S. Capitol building is seen before sunrise on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March. 21, 2022.

A debate organized by students at Point Park University Tuesday evening offered a rare chance to see all five Democrats seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle. And while the candidates offered only a few sharp policy contrasts, the 90-minute discussion, which was held with support from the League of Women Voters, did showcase differences in style and governing philosophy.

State Rep. Summer Lee, whose campaign is the outgrowth of a years-long effort to build up a progressive movement in the region, foregrounded the role she could play transforming Congress, and the political moment.

While each of the candidates expressed support for abortion rights, Lee noted that reproductive health is a broader concern — one with particularly high stakes for women of color.

“They are attacking and perpetuating poverty, and these are the identities of people who are least likely to occupy the halls of power,” she said. “The maternal mortality of this country is higher than it is in other industrialized countries. We have in this country an inability to keep Black women alive, yet we have legislators who want to say that they must give birth.”

Lee also said that while it was possible to work with Republicans on some matters, when it comes to crucial issues involving social equity and justice, many in the GOP are obstacles to progress. In those cases, she said, “The best thing that we can do is to show and say who they are and to organize and build coalitions on the outside [and] get rid of them.”

Squirrel Hill attorney Steve Irwin offered a somewhat less oppositional view, saying that while he would assert key Democratic principles, pragmatism is also needed to provide for the district’s needs.

“I am somebody who believe that we have to plant our flag, [but] sometimes we have to make adjustments” and accept half a loaf rather than none," he said. “We have to move forward. We have to make progress.”

Irwin touted his own background as proof that he could deliver. He noted that he worked as a legislative aide for former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and helped secure money for the Pittsburgh light-rail system — a win that the region would need more of as infrastructure decayed.

“I'm going to make sure that Pittsburgh gets its fair share of these infrastructure funds,” he said. “I know how to get them, I've done it before, I'll do it again when I get to Congress."

University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson talked up his own background and experience, suggesting that his legal expertise could help craft legislative solutions and help work around Republican opposition.

After a pandemic-related eviction moratorium expired, he said, “I took on a huge caseload of representing tenants who were being evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay rent. … The federal government has a role to play in this intervention, and I expect to be shepherding some of those policies” in Congress.

On abortion rights, Dickinson said if efforts to codify the right to abortion in legislation failed, “I would advocate for the Biden administration to lease federal land for abortion providers so that they won’t be subjected to state laws that are abortion-restrictive.”

Fracking for natural gas was one of the few areas where there was a sharp disagreement about the political ends, rather than the means. Lee, for whom environmental justice has long been a key issue, urged an outright ban on the practice. She noted that much of her district, which includes part of the Monongahela Valley, already had contended with decades of industrial pollution and was wary of more drilling.

Irwin embraced phasing out fossil fuels, but he said gas drilling was needed in the interim and that the economic health of many communities depend on it. Dickinson did not call for an immediate fracking ban but an end to fossil fuels by 2030, advising in the meantime new rules to limit the fossil-fuel industry’s political influence.

The debate featured few fireworks. But Dickinson did lob a couple grenades in his closing remarks, criticizing Irwin’s firm for representing employers involved in labor disputes with their workers and faulting Lee for running to keep her state House seat while also running for Congress.

The practice of running for two seats at once is not unheard of — Austin Davis, Lee’s colleague in the adjoining House district, is running for that seat while also campaigning for lieutenant governor — though it is sometimes criticized. Lee has previously explained that her goal was to serve the community in whatever capacity. Irwin’s firm has represented clients in litigation related to labor struggles, although labor attorneys have told WESA it is not active in the practice of “union avoidance,” in which law firms seek to frustrate efforts by employees to organize unions.

The debate also featured two candidates who have drawn less attention: activist Will Parker, who previously sought to run for mayor in Pittsburgh but did not earn a spot on the ballot, and Jeff Woodard, who heads a nonprofit organization that helps lower-income students get into college.

Woodard took a moderate course and took no position on the key issues of abortion and fracking, saying he first wanted to learn more or see how the issues played out in Congress or in the courts. He took a measured stance on policing, saying he opposes efforts to reduce police funding but favors more training and a national police registry for officers with troubled pasts: “If they commit a crime, get into trouble, they should be going into a national registry so that we know their background no matter where they go.”

Parker pulled fewer punches. He said he favors abortion rights but suggested a cap on the number of abortions a woman could have: “Let’s not make it a habit. … I wouldn’t like hearing about a woman [who] had 10 abortions. Why? What’s the need for that?” He then thanked his mother for not aborting him.

Parker also urged that, after Doyle’s long tenure in the district, “It’s time for something new,” in terms of diversifying the region’s leadership. In a race in which Irwin is the only white candidate, Parker said “If it doesn’t work, vote for Steve Irwin in the next two years.”

The Democratic primary is May 17. The winner will likely face a Republican foe — also named Mike Doyle — this fall.

Updated: April 14, 2022 at 10:09 AM EDT
This story was updated to note that the debate was organized by students at Point Park.
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.