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In Pittsburgh, top House Democrat urges local unions to join fight against 'diabolical' GOP

U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Congressman Chris Deluzio in Wilkinsburg on Sunday, July 23, 2023.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Congressman Chris Deluzio in Wilkinsburg on Sunday, July 23, 2023.

Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, appeared in Wilkinsburg alongside U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio on Sunday, urging union leaders to rally to the side of Democrats in 2024.

“We are confronting a diabolical group of people who want to take this country in a very different direction,” Jeffries told some two dozen local union leaders and elected officials gathered at the Nancy’s Revival diner.

Borrowing a catchphrase from President Joe Biden, the New York Democrat and House minority leader said his party seeks to build “an economy from the middle out and the bottom up. But there are people in this country who want to continue to rig the economy from the top down. And those are the stakes. That's the battle lines that have been drawn.”

The visit, a stop on Jeffries’ itinerary to raise campaign funds for House Democrats, comes as they hope to retake the chamber next year. And it proceeds in the shadow of a potential government shutdown this fall, as conservative Republicans in the House seek spending cuts that go beyond a budget agreement that headed off a debt default earlier this year.

Deluzio argued that Republicans are ignoring the need for infrastructure spending and efforts to encourage more manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“We should be doing the opposite of defunding this stuff,” he said. “We should be investing in it. And that's what we're up against down there.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee responded with a Monday-morning statement faulting Deluzio for appearing with Jeffries — who the NRCC called "Democrats' antisemitic ringleader" — days after another Democrat, Pramila Jayapal, "hurled antisemitic remarks toward Israel."

The NRCC flagged Jeffries for having supported his uncle during a decades-old controversy around his uncle's antisemitic remarks. Jeffries and other House Democrats criticized Jayapal's statementslast week, and he and Deluzio both voted for a resolution affirming American support for Israel.

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As First Lady Jill Biden did during her own stop in the area last week, Jeffries and Deluzio touted recent investments in government infrastructure and legislation to encourage manufacturing. It’s a message voters can expect to hear a lot in the year to come, as Pennsylvania likely will once again play a key role in deciding the 2024 Presidential race and likely control of the Senate.

“We don’t repeat those accomplishments to tell the American people, ‘Reward us,’” Jeffries said. “We were just doing the right thing. But we do think it's important ... to be able to elevate those accomplishments so that we are saying to the American people, ‘Trust us.’”

Deluzio, a first-term congressman representing Beaver County and much of Allegheny County, noted that the steel being used to construct a new terminal at the Pittsburgh International Airport was manufactured entirely within his district.

“That is exactly what we are fighting for,” he told the audience. “We need more investment in this country — those good, solid union jobs backed up by a federal government that recognizes they matter, that our infrastructure matters, that union jobs matter.”

And in Jeffries’ telling, those initiatives were an effort to reverse what he called “cataclysmic events over the last several decades: poorly negotiated trade deals, the outsourcing of good-paying American jobs, the decline in unionization, the rise of automation.

“Any one of these factors would have had a really consequential impact on the middle class. You’ve got four or five colliding at the same time,” he said, along with an increased concentration of wealth among the richest.

Biden’s first two years in office, he said, were “a collective effort to change the trajectory of our economy.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was on hand for the gathering, as was Jay Costa, the leader of state Senate Democrats, and Wilkinsburg Mayor Dontae Cowans. Union leaders, meanwhile, were fulsome in their praise for Deluzio and Democrats, with Teamsters official Carl Bailey singling out Biden’s rescue of the union’s pension fund.

“I had people that would call me with tears in their eyes because they weren't getting by,” said Bailey, who appeared to be choking up himself. “I now have people call me with tears in their eyes thanking me for what you guys did.”

Still, Jeffries acknowledged that “we’re not going to be able to reverse 40 years of decline with two years of legislative effort.” And with Republicans having taken control of the House last year, he’s been leading a mostly defensive effort, trying to protect Biden’s initiatives while staving off a threatened debt-limit default earlier this year and a likely government shutdown this fall.

“Many of my extreme MAGA Republican colleagues may actually shut the government down,” he said, so it's a real risk. “But we are going to hold firm just like we did during the default crisis and not pay any ransom note demanded by extreme MAGA Republicans.”

Jeffries was in town as part of an ongoing effort to raise funds for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which seeks to help elect Democrats to the House. Republicans control the chamber by 10 votes. If Democrats can flip enough seats next year, they would regain control of the House — and Jeffries would be positioned to become the first Black speaker in the chamber’s history.

The odds are against them picking up any seats in western Pennsylvania, where voter registration and past performance strongly favor incumbent Republicans outside Allegheny County such as Guy Reschenthaler or Mike Kelly.

But Jeffries gamely said Democrats are “in the process of evaluating where the pick-up opportunities may be. I do think that because Pennsylvania is going to be a state where there’s a lot of competitive activity … those two seats are potential opportunities.”

In any case, he said, the 2018 special-election win that sent Conor Lamb to Congress “provided the first indication that we had the opportunity to try to reclaim the House … and it all started right here in western Pennsylvania.” And Deluzio, who succeeded Lamb in the 17th District, “is in one of the most competitive seats in the country,” he added.

“Western Pennsylvania has been there for the American people,” Jeffries said. “House Democrats will continue to be there for western Pennsylvania.”

Updated: July 24, 2023 at 11:51 AM EDT
This story was updated at 11:50 a.m. on Monday, July 24, 2023 to include a response from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
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.