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Summer Lee and Bhavini Patel clash over the Middle East in raucous forum

Summer Lee, Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The three candidates, Summer Lee (right), Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald, met with one of the organizers of the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum before they squared off on Sunday.

Conflict in the Middle East elicited heated exchanges between U.S. Rep. Summer Lee and one of her two primary challengers, Bhavini Patel. at the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum at Carnegie Mellon University on Sunday.

Laurie MacDonald also attended the forum, making it the first opportunity for voters in the 12th Congressional District to hear from the three declared candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. The forum touched on a range of issues — including abortion, climate change and gun regulation — and while the candidates broadly agreed on those touchstone Democratic issues, there were sharp differences on a handful of issues amplified by a boisterous crowd.

Patel accused Lee of ignoring Israel and Jewish people in Pittsburgh after the deadly attacks on Israel by Hamas on October 7. Patel said she attended events held by local Jewish groups in the days after the attack, and Lee didn’t show up. She also accused Lee of taking more than three weeks before taking down a tweet accusing Israel of bombing a hospital: Outside assessments later said the hospital was more likely struck by a misfired rocket launched from inside Gaza.

“To me, that's stoking hatred. That's stoking anti-Semitism. And it puts people in our communities in a tragic, dangerous position,” Patel said and then invoked the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack. “There are local implications. This is the community that went through the worst anti-Semitic attack on American soil.”

Lee countered that she didn’t attend every local event because she was working in Congress. She said she’s since met with every Jewish and Palestinian group who has asked to speak with her. And she continued to emphasize that peace in the Middle East will require support from Palestinians as well as Israelis, and will require criticism of the way Israel’s leaders have been conducting its war.

“We have to be clear that no government, no country is above critique,” Lee said. “The way that [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has conducted this war, it's indefensible.”

The audience responded noisily to both positions, prompting moderators to urge restraint.

People sit in chairs in an auditorium.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Audience members at the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum at Carnegie Mellon waiting for the forum to start.

Lee has been on the defensive regarding her positions on Israel before. During her initial run for Congress in 2022, Lee defeated Steve Irwin, a Jewish Democrat, for the Democratic nomination despite heavy attacks on Lee by pro-Israeli advocacy groups. Even before Oct. 7, Patel had criticized Lee for not attending a speech by Israel’s president and for voting against a resolution in support of the country.

Lee is expecting the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to again spend heavily to defeat her again this cycle. And when asked what bill she would most like to pass, she said it would be to end large money in politics by rescinding the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. In what seemed a swipe at Patel, she said that leaving the status quo in place amounted to “saying that we don’t care about our democratic institutions more than we care about our own ambition.”

Personal stories and presidential power

At various points, each of the three candidates emphasized the uniqueness of their personal backgrounds.

Lee, the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, spoke repeatedly about her efforts to empower groups that had long been unrepresented. Patel told the story of how her mother immigrated to Pittsburgh from India, opened a food truck business, and helped Patel to get an education. Patel has since been an aide to former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

MacDonald highlighted her leadership at The Center for Victims, a nonprofit with a multimillion dollar budget that she said serves crime victims and their families. She repeatedly touted her own roots in the Monongahela Valley as well as her work on behalf of victims, but touched off yet another outburst from the audience when she said that residents in Lee’s district “have no families. They live in squalor.”

When some audience members challenged that description, MacDonald grew flustered and stopped responding to the question.

“You think you know, right? Well guess what? I work there. I help those families,’ she said. “I don't need to take that. I'm done. My record speaks for itself. I'm done. I help families. I help everyone. I don’t have a prejudice. I love everybody even if we disagree.”

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Patel criticized Lee more than once for being insufficiently supportive of President Joe Biden, the Democratic standard bearer.

“If you're going to say that you stand with President Biden, you should be able to say that clearly, because it's ultimately about protecting American democracy, making sure that President Biden gets reelected, which because it's likely going to be a situation where it's President Biden versus Donald Trump. Again, we have zero room for error.

Patel did not identify areas where Lee had undermined Biden, but Lee has pressed Biden to change his approach to Israel, and AIPAC ads from 2022 attacked her for expressing reservations that Biden’s initiatives hadn’t gone farther.

Lee praised elements of Biden’s record during Sunday’s forum, and has repeatedly trumpeted investments of federal dollars in the district, including most recently a $142 million commitment to upgrade I-376. But she made no apology for pushing Biden from the left on issues like student debt relief and the environment.

“We actually need people who are going to be bold and push the president just a little bit so that we can get to that debt cancellation,” she said. “We need young people who are going to push the administration on climate change because we have to meet the scope and the scale and the urgency at the moment.”

Patel and Lee appeared to be focusing on different constituencies. Patel said she had the support of local Jewish and Indian voters, in addition to recent endorsements by building trade unions. Lee made direct appeals to Black, progressive and young voters.

Patel, who has a degree in international relations from the University of Oxford, criticized Lee for voting against a Congressional effort to sanction countries that provide weapons to Iran. My opponent also tweeted information indicating that the president doesn't have the authority to authorize airstrikes in the Red Sea against the Houthis, when in fact, he actually does have the authority to do that.”

Although Presidential air strikes have often faced criticism, according to Reuters many experts believe a president currently is legally allowed a limited ability to order strikes in defense of the country but can’t formally declare war. Lee didn’t back down from the criticism she and other progressive Democrats have raised about Biden’s actions.

“I have a law degree,” she said. “And no, the president does not have the authority to declare a war or to strike without a prior authorization of Congress. … In Congress, we serve as a co-equal branch of government. We do not serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.