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A week before the primary, 12th Congressional District candidates square off in WTAE debate

The five Democrats seeking Mike Doyle's seat in Congress met in the WTAE studios for a debate one week before the May 17 primary
WTAE livestream
The five Democrats seeking Mike Doyle's seat in Congress met in the WTAE studios for a debate one week before the May 17 primary

The five candidates running to replace Mike Doyle talked about inflation, guns, abortion, and infrastructure for an hour on WTAE-TV Tuesday night. But it was really in the last few minutes where their differences became clear.

State Representative Summer Lee, who has run as a progressive challenger intent on shaking up the status quo, used her closing minute to address what she called “the elephant in the room”: a million-dollar barrage of advertisements questioning her allegiance to the Democratic Party and its national agenda.

“In seven days, we can make history,” she said. “We can elect the first Black woman to ever serve Pennsylvania in Congress … and proven champion for working families. But … we will have to navigate a multi-million-dollar smear campaign that has called me everything but what I am.”

The ad campaign attacking Lee, which has inundated the airwaves and mailboxes of western Pennsylvania, has been funded by an outside “superPAC” funded by a pro-Israeli group that has expressed concern about Lee’s position on Israel. But Lee has said little about the Middle East and the spots themselves make no mention of Israel, instead attacking Lee for social media posts where she has sometimes criticized her own party, including President Biden, for not doing more to advance the progressive agenda.

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.

Lee’s chief rival, attorney Steve Irwin, is being supported by the group, and on Tuesday seemed to tacitly referred to some of its criticisms in his own closing remarks.

“I believe in our president. I believe in our party,” Irwin said. “And I believe in you. We know that this election really is about one thing: who can deliver to help President Biden bring real, tangible results for the people of western Pennsylvania.”

Throughout the evening, Irwin touted his own work on infrastructure issues, which has included working for the late Senator Arlen Specter and a stint on a regional transportation planning commission.

Law professor Jerry Dickinson, meanwhile, lobbed grenades at both his rivals. “We certainly don't need to send an ineffective state legislator like Summer Lee down to Washington, D.C. And we certainly don't need to send a millionaire and someone who owns a golf course like Steve Irwin,” he said, referring to financial disclosure forms that show Irwin has a 50 percent stake in a Westmoreland County country club. “There's enough rich men down there.”

“We need to send people with experience,” Dickinson added. Positioning himself between Lee and Irwin as a staunch progressive but with an eye toward results, he characterized himself as someone who could deliver “generational change” but who also had “the leadership style that will get things done in Congress.

As with an earlier debate, there were few marked policy differences between the three candidates — or the two other hopefuls on the debate stage, Will Parker and Jeff Woodard.

There were some contrasts: Woodard sounded the most critical about gun regulations, for example. And Irwin was the only candidate to specifically say that natural gas — a key industry in western Pennsylvania — should play a part in the region’s energy portfolio in the coming years. Lee and Dickinson pushed for a rapid transition to renewable energy, and Lee was critical of the business world generally, blasting corporate profiteering in a question about inflation.

But with the exception of Parker, who questioned other candidates’ sincerity at times, there was no direct confrontation between candidates other than a back-and-forth between Dickinson and Lee about her position on the infrastructure law Congress passed last fall. Instead, candidates sought to differentiate themselves with their biographies, with Lee especially calling attention to the importance of representation in Congress.

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

In answer to a question about abortion, for example, she noted that she was the only candidate on stage whose rights would be directly impacted by a rollback of reproductive rights. After Irwin expressed concerns for the law’s impact on his children, Lee said, “Your daughters, your sisters, your wives can speak for themselves. And this election is about that.”

The primary is May 17.

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.