Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh hosts, and hopes to inspire, national gathering of progressives this week

Candidate for lieutenant governor, state Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, speaks during a visit to the Laborers District Council Training and Learning Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Pennsylvania Democrats selected Davis to be their lieutenant governor candidate, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Davis had been endorsed by the party's nominee for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Matt Rourke
Austin Davis, a Democratic state House member, and nominee for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, will be a headliner at this year's Netroots Nation convention in Downton Pittsburgh.

A lot has changed since the last time Netroots Nation came to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in 2009. Back then, Barack Obama had just taken office and the future looked bright for the progressive movement embodied by the gathering.

This year’s event, which organizers say should attract roughly 2,500 attendees, takes place at the same venue, but in a much murkier moment. A U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Democrats have until very recently often seemed adrift under President Joe Biden, and the country is less than three months out from an election that is expected to be challenging for his party.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Stay on top of election news from WESA's political reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every weekday morning.

But state Rep. Austin Davis, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and a headliner at the event, says Pittsburgh’s recent political history offers an inspiring lesson.

“If I would have told you six years ago that the mayor of Pittsburgh would be Black, and that we are on the verge of having a Black female congressional representative, and that the state’s first Black lieutenant governor would come from here — you would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’"

What the past six years show, he said, is that progressives can win by “elevating the voices of people who are on the ground. I say this in my speeches all the time: The people who are closest to the pain should be closest to the power. We embrace that here in Pittsburgh, and I think you're seeing that around the country.”

Netroots Nation itself began as a gathering organized by DailyKos, an influential online gathering place established by Markos Moulitsas. And as it has grown in stature since the first gathering in 2006, it has drawn some movement leaders of national stature: Pittsburgh’s 2009 event, for example, had former President Bill Clinton as a keynote speaker along with former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean.

This year’s event is, thanks to the coronavirus, the first in-person gathering for Netroots in three years. Some 140 panel discussions, workshops and other events — including some yoga sessions and at least one lunchtime protest — are planned to help progressives meet the moment.

“With the ongoing threat of a fascist takeover of our democracy, progressives are fired up and ready to win elections up and down the ballot this November,” Netroots spokesperson Mary Rickles said in a statement. “The activists, organizers, and influencers at Netroots are at the helm of the biggest fights to protect our rights, and their support will be critical in determining the outcome of the midterms.”

This year’s gathering in Pittsburgh will include Minnesota Congressional representative Ilhan Omar, one of the highest-profile progressives in Congress, as well as Minnesota Attorney General (and onetime contender for national Democratic chair) Keith Ellison. Labor figures will also attend, ranging from teacher’s union national president Randi Weingarten to Chris Smalls of the upstart labor movement that has been unionizing Amazon.

Western Pennsylvania will be well represented too, especially on Thursday, where events are slated to feature officials that include Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, Congressional contender Summer Lee — a standard-bearer of the region’s progressive movement — state Senator Lindsey Williams and state Rep. Sara Innamorato.

Local activists including Brandi Fisher, Miracle Jones, and Jasiri X will also speak at a panel discussion about the role Black-led activist groups have played in transforming local politics.

Innamorato said the convention is “ a good opportunity to meet people from around the country who are building expertise in fundraising and emailing and all the technical things that go into organizing — both in the community and in the digital space.”

Then too, she said, “It feels great to be able to show off the movement-building work that’s been happening here. We’re not the bluest area people think of when they think of progressive spaces in America, but we’ve been able to build a movement that is multiracial, intergenerational, working-class, and focused on unifying around common goals related to justice.”

The convention runs through Saturday.

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.