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Postponed Patel event at Pitt sparks controversy in U.S. House 12th District primary

Bhavini Patel.
Patel campaign
Bhavini Patel is campaigning for the 12th Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.

Congressional candidate Bhavini Patel’s campaign said a planned Feb. 7 appearance at the University of Pittsburgh was called off the night before because of concerns about “disruption."

Patel, who is a Pitt alumna, had been slated to speak Wednesday evening as part of an alumni speaker series hosted by Pitt's Frederick Honors College. But she said in social media postings that Pitt had “canceled my speaking engagement citing concerns of disruption and my safety."

The university has asked Patel to reschedule the event for later in the year. But she said Wednesday night that, "It saddens me that I couldn’t speak at my own alma mater, and I wish I could have shared this message with the young people building the future of our country."

A statement from the university did not mention the possibility of disruption, though it didn't deny it either.

“The Frederick Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh regularly invites distinguished alumni to speak to students about their time at Pitt," the statement said. "It was in this capacity, not as a political candidate, that the University invited Bhavini Patel to speak. As the event drew closer, it became clear that it would not be possible to host the event at the originally planned location and keep the focus of the event on her experience as a Pitt alumna.”

Pitt’s policy on political activity bars “directly or indirectly engaging in any political campaign activities.” Such activity would include political fundraisers and “distributing statements on behalf of a candidate or party.”

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The event had been slated for a conference room at the school's University Club. But on Feb. 6, one day before the event, Honors College Dean Nicola Foote wrote in an email to Patel that “[a]fter serious consideration and consultation with university partners,” the school needed to reschedule the event until after the spring primary.

“We have run into complications with the location of the event as it stands tomorrow; scheduling it for fall would give us the ability to secure a location free from potential disturbances,” Foote wrote.

The email, which was provided to WESA by the Patel campaign, did not describe the "disturbances" in question, though there have been social media posts to suggest that demonstrators might attend the event.

In her Wednesday-night statement, Patel implicitly linked the cancellation to Lee supporters.

“As a brown woman, I’ve experienced racism and xenophobia all my life,” she said. “You expect to see these racist, xenophobic and hateful scare tactics in a Republican primary. You don’t expect to see it from those working on behalf of and championing a sitting Democratic member of Congress.”

Patel’s characterization of the cancellation was contested by Tanisha Long, a community organizer on criminal justice reform issues. She said on Twitter that the event was scrubbed because “Pitt is a nonprofit that was called out for hosting a political candidate, which they can’t do."

Nonprofit organizations generally take a cautious approach to campaign activities because IRS policy says tax-exempt institutions are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Indeed, the Patel campaign provided WESA with copies of email exchanges with university staff following a December invitation to speak from the Honors College. The correspondence suggests that Patel and school officials were addressing concerns that the event not be campaign-related several days in advance.

On Jan. 29, a university staffer wrote that after Patel “mentioned bringing campaign workers to your event” the staffer learned “the University is prohibited from engaging in campaign-related activities including having campaign workers at the event and taking photos.”

“I appreciate the context of the event and limitations” Patel responded. But she noted she is “actively campaigning” for Congress. “Would that be a problem? I’m sure that will come up in my remarks and as I answer questions.”

The campaign's email record did not include a direct response to that query. But in a later email, a Pitt staff member said that a subsequent list of talking points "regarding your time at the Honors College and how it impacted you” would “appear to be within the University guidelines. We are currently working with the [Honors College] Student Council to draft questions for you to respond to.”

Instead, the event was called off.

Long, who is a Pitt alumna as well, said she was told about the event by a Pitt employee. She told WESA that she posted a comment on the event Facebook page, asking how the school could host a candidate.

Of the university, she said, "You're in the middle of the district, and you have an extremely large platform." Long said she believes it is important for voters to hear from candidates in a variety of forums. But without a chance for other candidates to speak, "It doesn't matter what she's speaking on when you choose to honor one candidate and not the other.

"I understand Pitt claims this wasn't a political event, but given the optics and Pitt's location, this was a political opportunity," she said. "It doesn't have to be a political event for a campaign to turn it into a political opportunity."

Long has supported Lee on Twitter but said the Lee campaign did "absolutely not" speak with her about the event. And while she heard from people who were "interested in how they could engage with Pitt" and wanted to know what right they had to protest, she said she was unaware of any plans to disrupt the event.

"If there was an underground organizing effort, it either hadn't reached me or it wasn't planned," she said.

A page advertising Patel’s appearance was pulled down, but screen captures of university posts about it suggest that she would “share her story of being a first-generation graduate of the honors college to becoming an elected official.” (Patel currently serves on Edgewood Borough Council and previously was an aide to former Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.) There was no mention of her congressional candidacy, though like many candidates for elected office, Patel regularly cites her life story in the course of her campaign.

Pitt has dealt with protests arising from on-campus speakers before, as it did last spring by hosting a debate on sexual identity that featured conservative podcaster Michael Knowles amid protests by demonstrators in support of the transgender community.

This latest dispute takes place in an already-fractious race in which the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants looms large over Democratic politics. The issue was a flashpoint during a debate late last month between Lee and other candidates in the race.

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.