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As Sanders visits, progressives and political establishment clash in 12th Congressional District

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, addresses the crowd as he endorses Pa. state Rep. Summer Lee, center, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania's 12th District U.S. Congressional district, at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 12, 2022. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, is at right. Pennsylvania's primary election is Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Rebecca Droke
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, addresses the crowd as he endorses Pa. state Rep. Summer Lee, center, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania's 12th District U.S. Congressional district, at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 12, 2022. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, is at right. Pennsylvania's primary election is Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

The battle to replace Mike Doyle in Congress reached a crescendo Thursday, as Pittsburgh received a visit from progressive patriarch Bernie Sanders, while the region’s political establishment squared off — more openly than ever before — against the candidate he came to support. And while Sanders hailed state Rep. Summer Lee for challenging the status quo, Doyle and others warned that constantly opposing the powers-that-be makes it hard to partner with them, even for the good of the district.

Sanders, the Vermont senator whose 2016 presidential campaign galvanized the modern progressive movement, told a crowd of hundreds in a Downtown hotel ballroom that “We need members of Congress to have the guts to stand up for working families. And to have the courage — the courage, which I should tell you, is very rare in D.C. — to take on the powerful special interests who control this country.”

Sanders said Lee would be his ally on a number of crucial issues: raising the minimum wage for workers, raising taxes on the wealthy, making college tuition-free, and dislodging the fossil-fuel industry with renewable energy. And he added that he was “here for another reason" — to push back on a multimillion-dollar ad campaign targeting Lee.

The campaign is financed largely by United Democracy Project, which is tied to an advocacy group with a hawkish position on supporting Israel. So far, the so-called “super PAC” reports spending $2.4 million on the race.

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.

“This is why this election is so enormously important,” Sanders said. “Even if you don't agree with Summer on all of the issues, you need to vote for her to tell these super PACs, these billionaires, they cannot buy elections.”

In particular, Sanders took issue with the ads’ contention that Lee, who has often challenged the leadership of her own party, was not a real Democrat. Sanders said the ads were “funny” because the last time he’d been in Pittsburgh, it was to appear with Lee at a 2020 rally for Joe Biden. “I don't recall seeing any of these super PAC guys” at the event, he said.

Other groups have spent money in the race. Justice Democrats PAC, for one, has reported spending nearly $700,000 on Lee’s behalf. But the volume and tone of the UDP ads have defined much of the race.

“A better world is possible,” Lee told the crowd. “They might throw millions and millions of dollars at us. But we're going to build it anyways.”

But while Lee talked of making a better world, her chief rival argued that she could make it harder to build a better district.

‘A very stark choice’

Hours before Sanders’ arrival, the campaign of Steve Irwin hosted a press call in which local officials expressed a concern long quietly held among some civic leaders: that Lee is more interested in rallying people to a cause than in corralling resources for the region.

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

Doyle himself — the man Lee hopes to replace — told reporters the election “provides a very stark choice of what direction we’re going.”

Sanders, Doyle said, “had a lot of ideas” but “he didn’t work with his colleagues and he was too rigid in his ideology. It was Bernie’s way or nothing got done. So as a result … nothing got done.”

Doyle suggested that political ideology was a minor factor in the race because, “Steve will be a progressive vote” on core Democratic issues. “We're talking about how a person works … to produce results.”

Doyle is not a noted author of landmark bills. But he is often credited for firming up critical votes needed to pass former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, for example. And local leaders praise his ability to procure federal resources — both with infrastructure projects and with federal research dollars for robotics and medical research.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald hailed that investment as crucial financing in Pittsburgh’s reinvention of itself after the collapse in steel. And he said, “If you're not willing to compromise, you are not going to get things done.”

By contrast, he said, with progressives “It's my way or the highway. Well, actually, what it is is ‘my way or no highway,’ because the highway won't get built if they don't get every single thing they want.”

Exhibit A in that argument is the fact that Lee has said that she isn’t sure how she would have voted on Biden’s signature 2021 infrastructure bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support. Lee sided with progressive House dissidents who worried that voting on the measure as a standalone bill — rather than pairing it with Biden’s more ambitious “Build Back Better” plan — would squander leverage to pass the tougher bill. That, she said, was a position that supported Biden’s entire agenda, not just the easy part of it.

But on Thursday, Doyle said, “There was a very real danger that if we adopted that position, we'd have gotten neither [bill passed]. A decision had to be made. And this is what you face sitting in Congress all the time. … You have to build coalitions,” he added. “You have to get outside your comfort zone and outside your base and bring people in to share the vision.”

Lee, of course, has campaigned on the idea that it’s the party and the political system that needs to reach beyond its comfort zone, to disempowered working-class people and communities of color. While Doyle spoke of political power in terms of building coalitions within government, Lee’s focus to date has been on building them outside it.

Asked about Doyle’s concerns after her rally, Lee acknowledged that neither she nor anyone else would start out with his decades of experience negotiating within the system. “When you're doing what's right and what's hard, you are going to have to stand alone sometimes,” she said.

Still, she said, her state legislative district had received “millions” in state dollars during her tenure. In Congress, too, she said, “I, just like everyone else, want to make sure that we are getting the investments that we need.”

Asked how she would work alongside the political leadership she has often strongly criticized, Lee said that for marginalized communities, “that’s been the way that we’ve had to navigate American society and our government forever.”

The way to make the system strong, she said, was “not allowing it to really stay settled and comfortable” but ensuring “it's reflective of all of the people who we are serving.” When that happens, she said, “We will see that in our policy. We'll see that in our appropriations. And that's what this is about.”

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.