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Thwarted in primary, political committee launches a million-dollar campaign to defeat Lee

State Rep. Summer Lee has won the Democratic nomination for U.S. House in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.
Rebecca Droke
State Rep. Summer Lee.

The United Democracy Project, which spent more than $2 million in an unsuccessful bid to beat Congressional candidate Summer Lee in the Democratic primary, has put down another $1 million for TV ads and mailings in the final 10 days before the Nov. 8 election itself. But while the group is the creation of AIPAC, arguably the foremost pro-Israel interest group in the country, its new attacks on the progressive state representative make no mention of Israel itself. 

"How radical is Summer Lee?" the 30-second spot asks. "Let her tell you." It then features snippets of Lee asserting that she will "start to lead conversations of what defunding [police] looks like" and that "I am a prison abolitionist." It also cites an "#abolishborders" tweet she used on one occasion more than four years ago. 

A mailer being sent in the district makes similar arguments and citations.  

“This is the same [political committee] that attacked me during the primary for not being sufficiently Democrat,” Lee tweeted Tuesday. “Now they’re trying to elect the Republican.” 

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Indeed, the investment comes at a time when Democrats are increasingly concerned about prospects in the 12th District, traditionally a Democratic stronghold centered on the city of Pittsburgh.

A Republican named Mike Doyle — who has the same name as but is unrelated to the district’s retiring Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. — is now seen less as a novelty act than a serious challenge. For weeks, Democratic circles have been abuzz over internal polls showing Lee with a lead in the mid-single digits. Those margins were confirmed in an Intercept story earlier this week, though a Democratic political group has sought to reassure Dems by circulating a polling memo that showed Lee with a 54 to 40 percent lead in the district.

Lee has been a vocal supporter of various criminal justice reform efforts, although the sweeping rhetoric of "prison abolition" and "defund the police" sometimes goes beyond the actual proposals themselves. In both cases, proponents typically call not for the end of public safety but for a rethinking of how it is carried out, and for shifting resources towards social spending that adherents say will make criminal behavior less likely.

In an interview with KDKA last month, Lee herself said that her goal with prison abolition was to "work toward getting the United States with the rest of the world" in terms of incarceration rates.  Noting that by many tallies the United States has the highest incarceration rate on the planet, she asked, "Do we believe about ourselves that we are just more prone to criminality?" Lee discounted that possibility and said instead, "I don't believe that we invest in people, that we invest in that social infrastructure that would alleviate crime, that would lift people out of poverty [and] desperate situations.  

"That's not to say that we want folks who commit crimes or do heinous things to go unaccounted," she added.

"We want accountability, we want rehabilitation.” 

“I'm not happy to see this” new UDP campaign, said Ritchie Tabachnick, the local political director for JStreet, a pro-Israel group that backs a less hardline approach to Palestinians.“I don’t think it has anything to do with Israel’s security. If they are concerned about anti-Semitism, they’re helping a party that is spreading the great replacement theory” — which holds that Jews are orchestrating waves of immigration to undermine the political power of white Christians — “which has spawned violence across the country and in Pittsburgh.”  UDP did not respond to questions sent Tuesday from WESA. But its parent organization, AIPAC, tweeted Tuesday evening that it “works to elect pro-Israel candidates — including the Democratic leadership and half the progressive caucus. AIPAC also works to defeat anti-Israel candidates like Summer Lee."

But neither the ads in the spring nor the current campaign mention Israel: When asked about that omission in the spring, UDP said, “It is important for voters to know that Summer Lee is out of the mainstream Democratic Party.”

Election Day: Nov. 8, 2022

Prior to her Congressional run Lee herself, a state legislator with no foreign policy role, has said almost nothing about Israel beyond a pair of tweets drawing parallels between the plight of Palestinians and people of color in the United States. In a forum hosted last April by the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, she affirmed her belief that Israel had a right to exist, but she cautioned that U.S. aid for the country — and all other nations — should take into account human rights concerns. 

Lee's top rival in the May primary, and arguably the person who stood to benefit from UDP's campaign at the time, was attorney Steve Irwin. But he said he is unhappy to see UDP weigh in on the race again.

Once the counting of ballots was completed, he said, "I announced my support for the nominee and the entire Democratic ticket — including Summer Lee.” Democratic Jewish Outreach, a group on whose board he sits, endorsed Lee for the general election.
"Nobody called me" from UDP about its activity, he said. "I want the Democrats to have Congress and I want her to win."

Irwin said he doubted that the issue of Israel itself would sway many votes next week — and not just because the ads don’t mention it. He said many voters he knows are more concerned about, say, Republican gubernatorial nomineeDoug Mastriano’s affiliation with the right wing website Gab, a haven for anti-Semitic commentary previously visited by the man accused in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. 

In a Democratic primary, Irwin said, "people can delineate between candidates on issues” like Israel. But in the fall, he said, "I think Jews aren't as concerned with Israel right now as with extremism in the United States." 

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.