Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

AIPAC signals potential 2024 moves against U.S. Rep. Summer Lee

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.
Rebecca Droke
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

T.S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month, but then he never had to cover politics in August. And it’s easier to breed lilacs out of a dead land than it is to find political stories when everyone’s on vacation.

There’s not even much budget chaos to talk about, since Harrisburg Republicans made it possible for Gov. Josh Shapiro to sign a state budget one month late — which by Harrisburg standards is right on time — and to defy the carping of doomsaying political newsletters. True, a fight still looms over Democratic spending priorities that require additional legislation — including additional funding for poor school districts and for higher ed institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh — but there may not be much happening in August on those fronts, either.

One can always try to localize news about the latest Donald Trump indictment, which involves the former president’s purported effort to overthrow the 2020 election. That story has drawn in some 20 Pennsylvania Republicans who joined a slate of electors ready to back Trump in the Electoral College back in 2020, even though voters here picked Biden. But as WESA and other outlets pointed out long ago, Pennsylvania’s GOP made very clear — in a press release, no less — that the group was not seeking to pass itself off as the real electors. They were the back-ups in case the Biden slate was rejected by the courts.

That defense may not satisfy Democrats, but as the Washington Post and others have noted, the GOP electors did enough that Trump advisors were worried that Republicans elsewhere might regain their senses if they heard about it.

“If it gets out we changed the language for PA it could snowball,” the Trump indictment quotes a campaign loyalist fretting.

If you can’t count on Harrisburg and Trump loyalists to deliver juicy headlines, who can you count on? Well, there’s always AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

The Jewish Insider reports that AIPAC, a hardline pro-Israel political group that spent several million dollars trying to defeat U.S. Rep. Summer Lee last year, “seeks to pick off a handful of incumbents who have been unusually hostile to Israel.” Relatedly, it reports that Bhavini Patel, who mounted a brief Congressional bid of her own last year, “is planning to challenge Lee” again in 2024.

None of this is surprising: I wrote last month that AIPAC was prospecting for candidates to challenge Lee, who the group views as hostile to Israel. That doesn’t mean Patel is its pick at this point, but in Democratic circles she is widely expected to run. When I reached out to her for comment, Patel didn’t sound like someone who isn’t laying the groundwork for a shot at Congress.

“Right now, my main focus is amplifying the voices and dreams of our diverse community,” she said in a statement. “As a woman of color and the child of immigrants, I feel both honored and deeply compelled to make sure everyone is seen, heard and valued. … It’s all about coming together, lifting each other up, and making a real difference.”

Patel has the kind of life story Pittsburgh wishes it had more of: a first-generation American of Indian ancestry whose family runs a food truck, and who attended Oxford and pursued a career in tech. She’s a member of Edgewood Council and works as a community outreach manager for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who is not, shall we say, noted for being a fan of Lee. Patel’s path in electoral politics has been rockier. Her 2022 Congressional bid failed to launch — the field was already crowded by the time she entered it — and a subsequent bid to take Lee’s old 34th District seat in the state House of Representatives also foundered.

In any case, it won’t be a shock if AIPAC does take the field against Lee next year: She’s among a highly progressive group of House Democrats, some of whom have been critical of Israel. And since being elected, she’s voted against a symbolic bill offering unbridled support for the country at a time when there is spirited debate within Israel itself about its direction. She also didn’t attend a speech to Congress by the country’s president.

AIPAC’s ads last year didn’t mention Israel at all: They portrayed Lee as an insufficiently loyal Democrat instead. They might make a similar case by citing the fact that Lee voted against a bill to avoid a default on the nation’s debt — even though she argued the move was a symbolic protest of GOP tactics that wouldn’t risk default.

Then again, since being elected Lee has made steps that may smooth some of the edges of her political persona. Take her appearance alongside Gov. Josh Shapiro at a recent eventwhere she decried a long history of disinvestment in Black communities while praising the building trades for expanding their training and apprenticeship programs. And I’ve seen private polling — not conducted by Lee — that suggests she’s among the most popular local elected officials in her political backyard.

That polling dates back a couple months, so if anyone has fresher numbers, please let me know. I’ll be skipping next week’s newsletter, but August is a looooooong month.

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.