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

Bhavini Patel to challenge Summer Lee in 2024 Congressional race

Bhavini Patel.
Patel campaign
Bhavini Patel will campaign for the 12th Congressional District seat held by Summer Lee next year

Touting a lifelong commitment to the region and a classic immigrant success story, Bhavini Patel is launching a bid Monday to challenge 12th Congressional District Rep. Summer Lee next year.

“We need a member of Congress in touch and laser-focused on helping real people in this district,” said Patel, a Democrat, in a statement announcing her campaign. “We need a leader who wants to bring people together to get things done, not divide us.”

Patel’s launch, which has been widely expected inside Democratic circles, draws heavily on Patel’s own experiences as an American success story whose mother immigrated from India to Pittsburgh.

Patel worked at family food trucks while growing up in Monroeville. After graduating from Gateway School District, she studied at the University of Pittsburgh and later at the University of Oxford. She launched an online political-engagement start-up and became active in civic life herself: In addition to a slew of civic groups to which she belongs, Patel is a member of Edgewood’s Borough Council, and she worked for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as a community outreach manager (a post from which she recently stepped down).

“There’s deep value in those lived experiences, and it sets the frame [for] your approach to legislating,” she said.

Leaders, she added, need to work on “creating a region where we’re investing in diversity and job creation so that people want to come here … start small business, attend universities here, and stay and raise their families and contribute to the progress of this region. And I think my life experience really positions me well to deliver on that.”

Patel’s views on issues like reproductive rights and gun policy put her squarely within the Democratic mainstream, and she touts an ability to connect with a broad swath of the those who live in the 12th District, which includes the city of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas of Allegheny County as well as an adjoining portion of Westmoreland County.

“When you understand the day-to-day challenges of what members of our community are going through, that becomes your priority,” she said. “We need somebody who’s committed to bringing home the federal dollars … so we can improve our roads and our bridges, our infrastructure.”

Patel will be challenging Lee, a first-term Congresswoman and a champion of local Democratic progressives since being elected to the state House in 2018.

Lee rose to Congress in part by calling out disparities in political and economic power that have long plagued the region. Some political foes have questioned whether her take-no-prisoners approach would jeopardize her ability to build coalitions in Washington, or to attract federal dollars to the region.

Lee brushed aside those criticisms during her re-election kick-off last month.

“They said [I] wouldn’t bring money to the district,” Lee said, but “we brought home money for people in communities that have not seen any investment for decades.”

Democrats have been expecting a run by Patel for some time, and her bid may come as welcome news to some strong supporters of Israel. Lee did not attend a Congressional speech by the country's president, Isaac Herzog, and voted against a resolution of support for the country. Lee has said she didn’t support the resolution due to her concerns about the direction of the current government, and that other obligations prevented her from attending the Herzog speech.

Patel did not criticize Lee directly during a nearly half-hour interview with WESA, though she made a case for her own campaign that might well resonate with Lee’s critics.

Patel said it was “really critical” to elect “somebody who is a strong advocate for Pittsburgh, taking Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania’s message to D.C. and being focused on a local agenda as opposed to a national agenda. … I also think it’s really critical that we have somebody that can be a strong partner to our president and help him fulfill his historic agenda.”

When asked, Patel said she would have attended Herzog’s speech. Noting Herzog came to Pittsburgh to mourn the victims of the 2018 synagogue shooting, she said he “was here during a very difficult time for our region.”

In any case, she said, “even if we are fundamentally in disagreement with some leaders, I think it’s important to attend those speeches."

The American Israeli Political Action Committee, a powerful hardline pro-Israel lobby, spent millions opposing Lee last year and has made clear it would like to topple Lee. Patel declined to say whether she expected support from the group.

“To try to box this campaign into a corner right from the get-go, I think it’s deeply, deeply problematic,” she said. “It’s just not reflective of the broad coalition of support that we’ve built.”

Patel has run for the 12th District seat before, though the field was crowded and she withdrew before the primary. After Lee won a place in Congress, Patel sought Lee’s former state House seat in a special election, a process in which the nominee is chosen by party insiders.

But Patel is upbeat about her prospects in 2024.

“We want somebody who will get things done … and you can deliver on that promise when you are in touch and you are committed to taking western Pennsylvania's message to D.C.,” she said. “We have the next six months to showcase that.”

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.