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'Do not equivocate': At national convention, Pittsburgh progressives say movement must be bold

State House member and Congressional candidate Summer Lee addressed the Netroots Nation convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
State House member and Congressional candidate Summer Lee addressed the Netroots Nation convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Pittsburgh officials and activists welcomed progressive activists from around the country Thursday to the Netroots Nation convention Downtown. And they had some lessons to share — perhaps the most important being that if a progressive political movement can win here, it can win anywhere.

“Do not equivocate because our message is a winning one,” state Representative and Congressional candidate Summer Lee thundered in a keynote address at the end of the convention’s first day.

Using a label to describe more conservative, pro-business Democrats, she said, “Pittsburgh can show you that we can win everywhere. If we can win in the city of Blue Dog Dems on environmental justice, then we can win on environmental justice anywhere.”

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But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and panel discussions and workshops throughout the day wrestled with how to build a grassroots movement at a time when money dominates the political landscape. Discussions focused on issues that ranged from fighting climate-change disinformation to using social media tools to organize while also contesting the power of Big Tech firms.

A featured panel discussion on Black-led movements involved input from a handful of Pittsburgh-area activists who laid out a multi-pronged strategy for building a political movement.

Brandi Fisher, who leads the Alliance for Public Accountability, discussed the role that two referenda put before local voters last year — one to bar “no-knock” warrants by city police and another to sharply curtail the use of solitary confinement in the Allegheny County Jail — played into a larger political strategy.

Progressives already had key races on the ballot, including an effort to elect Ed Gainey as the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh and to elect a slate of Common Pleas judges open to criminal justice reform. The referenda, she said, were a means of boosting turnout among voters likely to support those candidates.

“People say that Black and brown folks don’t vote,” Fisher said, but that is because “often politics doesn’t equate to change in our lives. At the end of the election, we don’t ordinarily see a change in the quality fo our lives. … So we decided what needed to have something on the ballot that would drive Black and brown folks and even poor white folks to that ballot.”

Miracle Jones, the advocacy and policy director for activist group 1Hood, said political movements are built outside of get-out-the-vote efforts. While large-scale protests are sometimes derided as ineffective or a distraction from voting, Jones noted that demonstrations against police brutality during the past few years created a common cause for participants.

In a segregated city like Pittsburgh she said, “When you go to a protest, that is one of the most diverse [events] you can see outside a Steelers game. When you’re protesting, your life depends on a stranger.”

That process, she said, builds solidarity and trust — and how the police responded to those demonstrations bolstered a movement for change.

“What happened in 2020 was not only that white people came out to protest, but white people got hurt” by police, she said. “When it was the white 20-year-old you sent to college being tear-gassed in the middle of the street in East Liberty ... it angered them, and so people mobilized” to support criminal justice reform efforts the following year.

There were naturally many criticisms of the American right, especially such figures as Jeffrey Yass, the Pennsylvania hedge-fund billionaire who has become a key funder of conservative candidates and causes.

But perhaps inevitably in a one-party town like Pittsburgh, where the power structure is upheld largely by Democrats, there were complaints about both parties.

Jones, for one, contrasted the Republican support for Jan. 6 protesters to the criticism protest organizers got from nominal allies.

“These people who literally tried to stage a coup, the most moderate person of their party will still stand by them,” she said. “And that’s a thing that still hurts a little bit.”

Lee made a similar point in her keynote address that evening.

“We are always told, you can’t be too progressive, you can’t be too Black,” she said, “The No. 1 rule is that you always have to appeal to some person in the middle you’ve never met. “ [But] while we were chasing that elusive swing voter, Black and brown people were dying every day.”

Still, speakers said that the success of the progressive movement in Pittsburgh bodes well for the future — if activists will fight for it up and down the ballot, and all across the electorate. And they said more good news may be coming

In a discussion among state legislators, state Rep. and former Senate candidate Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia said that recent Democratic policy win on issues such as climate change reflected the influence of younger voters.

“We’re shifting … the balance of power,” he said.

State Rep. Sara Innamorato urged attendees “don’t sleep on Pittsburgh” in future election cycles.

“In 2023, we expect big things,” she said.

Allegheny County will hold a number of key elections next year, starting with an open county executive seat as term-limited Rich Fitzgerald wraps up his third term. Innamorato is considered a possible candidate for that seat, a fact alluded to by local activist Khari Mosley, who was moderating that discussion: “I’m not going to put you on blast,” Mosley said to Innamorato, “but there may be some announcements coming at some point.”

Gainey, meanwhile, urged candidates and activists alike to remain engaged wherever they saw an opportunity — and even in places where others might not. He said he became Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor by reaching out not just to those committed to his cause, but to those who doubted it.

“I told them, 'Take me to Donald Trump country,'” he said. “Because if it's the progressive values that births a new economy, a new movement in this city, take me to where they say they don't want me.”

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.