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Pro-Israel group attacks Lee as bad Democrat without mentioning Israel, or its own support for GOP

Courtesy Summer Lee campaign
State Rep. Summer Lee

A pro-Israeli political committee has taken to Pittsburgh’s airwaves by attacking Congressional candidate Summer Lee. But while its advertisements — which don’t mention Israel at all — blast Lee for not being a loyal Democrat, the organization behind it also backs hardline Republicans who fought to overturn Joe Biden’s election.

The ad, which started hitting local airwaves last week, accuses Lee of saying “she wanted to dismantle the Democratic Party. … And she’s done everything in her power to do just that.” It faults her for criticizing Biden and accuses her of “refus[ing] to support Biden’s infrastructure plan" in a February City Paper interview.

Lee and her supporters reject those claims — while raising questions about the interests of those who paid for it.

The ad’s sponsor, United Democracy Project, says its goal is to “help elect candidates that … will be strong supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship.” UDP is a so-called “super PAC,” a political organization that, unlike traditional political action committees, can accept contributions of unlimited amounts but can’t coordinate directly with candidates.

UDP was launched by AIPAC, arguably the nation’s most prominent advocate for close ties to Israel. The vast majority of UDP’s money — some $8.5 million — was contributed by AIPAC, and the super PAC's top officer is AIPAC’s former political director. But UDP does not highlight those ties — indeed,it previously has been scrutinized by Israeli media for not disclosing its agenda.

AIPAC’s political committee backs officials across the political spectrum, including progressive stalwarts such as New York’s Hakeem Jeffries. But the group also supports Republican hardliners such as Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan and Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry, whose role in attempts to overturn the 2020 election has drawn national scrutiny.

“When you can hide behind a made-up organization, when you get to flood money into elections, you can play both sides,” Lee said.

Image from an ad attacking 12th Congressional District candidate Summer Lee. The spot is being aired by the United Democracy Project, whose sponsors have backed Republicans who sought to overturn the 2020 election.
Screenshot of ad
Image from an ad attacking 12th Congressional District candidate Summer Lee. The spot is being aired by the United Democracy Project, whose sponsors have backed Republicans who sought to overturn the 2020 election.

Lee is the only person in the race who currently holds elected office as a Democrat, and she has galvanized a progressive movement in local politics — which in Pittsburgh is dominated by the Democratic Party.

She calls the spot “disingenuous in every way.” While her political career has been built around challenging the power structure on behalf of marginalized communities, she said the spot wrenches those efforts out of context. Her Biden remarks, for example, were made during a hotly contested primary during which many Democrats locally and nationwide had other favorites but rallied behind Biden once he became the nominee.

The ad is falsely "trying to convey that I did this during the general election,” Lee said.

In any case, she added, “Are we saying constructive criticism is bad? That marginalized people shouldn't criticize the party on the ways in which it should do better?”

‘We will continue to be actively involved in this race’

AIPAC’s entrance into the race on behalf of Lee’s likely chief rival, attorney Steve Irwin, is no surprise. Hardline supporters of Israel have voiced doubts about Lee since this past fall: Like an increasing number of Democrats across the country, Lee has argued for such steps as attaching humanitarian conditions to future U.S. aid to the country.

In a statement, the group said it has aired the spots because “there is a clear difference between a candidate who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship in Steve Irwin and a candidate who will seek to undermine that relationship.”

Asked why the spot made no actual mention of Israel, the group asserted in the statement: “It is important for voters to know that Summer Lee is out of the mainstream Democratic Party.”

WESA asked the group whether it was hypocritical to accuse Lee of insufficient loyalty to Biden while also backing Republicans who sought to overturn his election. In response, UDP said its donors “are focused on ensuring that we have a U.S. Congress that … supports a vibrant and robust relationship with our democratic ally, Israel.” And it pointed to Democratic leaders it has backed.

“We will continue to be actively involved in this race,” it added.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, United Democracy Project has spent nearly $350,000 attacking Lee so far — an amount that is certain to increase, and that is already twice what the group has spent to date on attacking any other candidate. Mailers with messaging similar to the ad have also been sent out by the group to district voters.

Those are large sums in a race that has generally seen modest spending: Lee, herself a grassroots-fundraising juggernaut, put together slightly more than $300,000 of support in the first three months of the year.

AIPAC’s establishment of UDP, which has been accompanied by the creation of a more traditional political committee, marks an escalation in the group’s efforts to affect national policy. It also has been criticized for touting democracy in Israel while backing Republicans tied to efforts to overturn the 2020 election in the United States.

The bare-knuckles approach has concerned some local Jewish political leaders.

“They don’t use AIPAC’s name on the super PAC, but it’s AIPAC’s money, and this is an organization that supports a lot of Republicans, including those who voted to overturn the results of the election,” said Ritchie Tabachnick.

Tabachnick is the local political director of J Street, which urges a less hardline approach to Israel’s conflict with Palestinians. Tabachnick said the group has backed Lee, along with fellow candidate Jerry Dickinson, because “she's aligned with us on our core issues.”

An overview of what's at stake in the 2022 race for the new 12th Congressional district, as well as candidate profiles on Democrats Jerry Dickinson, Steve Irwin, Summer Lee, and Jeff Woodward; and Republican Mike Doyle.

“We've interviewed her twice locally, and the national organization has interviewed her," Tabachnick said. "I just don’t see Summer Lee as someone who isn’t a friend of Israel. [And] there’s no credibility to the statement that she isn’t a true Democrat."

‘It’s insulting to be told we don’t belong’

For her part, Lee says the spots mischaracterize her views by taking statements out of their context — which in each case involved a discussion about how to maximize power for people often left out of political decisions.

Lee’s tweet about dismantling the party, for example, appears to have been taken from an online argument with far-left critics, who contended Lee could best fight white supremacy by leaving the Democratic Party. Lee argued that third-party movements hadn’t shown they could deliver progress. She said that she would challenge reaction elements within the party itself but was not beholden to it. She called it “nothing but a [means] for having access to the yay or nay button on the House floor” to advance the interests of the disempowered.

The point, she told WESA, was to “dismantle those things that keep us from having a party that reflects our constituents and their values.”

And in the February City Paper interview cited by the ad, she did not say she would have voted against the infrastructure bill. Instead, she acknowledged that “I can't give you a definitive answer for how I would have voted." That was because she agreed with progressives in Congress who warned that voting on it as a standalone proposal — rather than alongside the more expansive Build Back Better proposal — weakened the leverage for the broader agenda.

With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, she said, "here was our opportunity [to] fundamentally change the lives of marginalized people, of poor and working-class people. It's why we have this majority." And given that Democrats have pulled back from more ambitious proposals since passing the bill, progressive skeptics "were proven right.”
“The issue was never the progressives,” she told WESA. “The issue was always the conservative Democrats" like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has constantly frustrated the Biden agenda.

In general, Lee said, “What we're seeing here — and this is a bigger issue — is the inclination to punch left, and to say it's the people on the left who are the obstructionists. But the real obstructionists have been Republicans and conservative Democrats.”

Given that Manchin did far more to disrupt the Biden agenda than progressives in Congress, she said, singling out progressive candidates of color like her reflects not just policy differences but “who they believe should be building power, and who power should be kept from.”

Lee noted that Democratic prospects increasingly rely on the votes of people of color. “We can't say we need Black people to engage in politics and then do things like this," she said. "It's insulting — to Black people, to young people, to women, to progressive — to be told that we don't belong here.”

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

While the law forbids candidates and super PACs from working together, it isn’t hard to send signals: Lee notes that Irwin’s site includes a “messaging” page that echoes some of the UDP ad’s arguments. Such pages can be used to telegraph a campaign’s talking points to outside supporters. And Lee said Irwin could send a message by repudiating the spots.

In a statement, Irwin’s campaign observed that “[b]y law, we have no control over Super PACs, but what the ad says appears to be very true.” As for AIPAC’s allegiances, the campaign noted the group had endorsed a range of Democrats, including members of the House Progressive Caucus.

“Steve Irwin is proud to stand up for the Jewish state of Israel and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East,” the statement asserted.

That posture disappoints Tabachnick, who worries that AIPAC’s use of Israel as a “wedge issue” will be bad for the Jewish homeland in the long term — and is hurting Democrats right now.

“I’ve known Steve Irwin for years, and I supported him [in a brief campaign last year] for lieutenant governor,” Tabachnick added. Still, he said, "I wish Steve would come out and say, ‘I don’t support what they are doing.’ But he hasn’t distanced himself from it, and I wish he would.”

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.