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Allegheny County Democrats endorse Summer Lee over Bhavini Patel

Summer Lee smiles while speaking into a microphone.
Rebecca Droke
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee won the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, the first time the progressive firebrand has done so, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024.

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee on Sunday won the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, the first time the progressive firebrand has done so. Members of the party backed her over challenger Bhavini Patel by a vote of 440 to 299, in a day of voting when incumbents racked up comfortable wins.

"It’s a joy and an honor to receive this overwhelming endorsement from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee — and I want to thank each and every one of our volunteers and supporters whose unmatched energy and enthusiasm made this possible," Lee said in a statement from her campaign shortly after results were announced. "Thanks to them, our coalition is bigger than ever. "

This marks the first time Lee, a progressive firebrand who came on the political scene in 2018 by challenging the party's status quo, secured the party's endorsement. She sought it in her Congressional run two years ago, and in both her prior runs for the state House.

In other contested races, state Rep. Nick Pisciottano brushed away a challenge by social worker and activist Makenize White by a count of 160 to 35 in a race for the 45th state Senate District being vacated by Jim Brewster. In the contest to fill Pisciottano’s Mon Valley-centered 38th District House seat, John Inglis beat A.J. Olasz by 53 to 39 votes.

That race, the closest of the day, reflected competing bases of support for the two House hopefuls: Inglis was backed by Pisciottano, while Olasz was backed by Brewster, among others.

In the 34th state House District once held by Lee, incumbent Abigail Salisbury beat challenger Ashley Comans by 95 to 22.

In all, 1,075 committee members voted on Sunday, a turnout rate of slightly more than 55%.

That’s far below the turnout of the 2023 endorsement, but then there were just four competitive races on which to weigh in. Many other current state legislators up for re-election sought the endorsement but faced no opposition for it.

“Half of the county didn’t have a contested race, so it’s understandable you’d have a smaller turnout,” said Sam Hens-Greco, who chairs the Democratic committee. “But it looks like a good response from areas with contested races.”

“I think the results probably reflect people who have been in office and are serving and doing their jobs as representatives,” said Hens-Greco. “I think that’s what I’d be reading from the results.”

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The endorsement is not binding on Democratic voters, who can and often do ignore it in the primary itself. But it can be a gauge of how party leaders view the candidates — and of the direction of the local party.

In recent cycles, the party often seemed to be at odds with Democratic voters. Progressive candidates such as Lee and state Reps. Emily Kinkead and Jessica Benham struggled to sway party insiders but went on to win the primary itself.

On Sunday, Lee racked up an impressive win. Leeann Younger, who chairs the committee's Pittsburgh organization, called the win a "decisive statement by Committee members" in a statement, and attributed it "both to changes happening within the committee [and] to the hard work Congresswoman Lee has put in."

Both Kinkead and Benham, meanwhile, were among a number of incumbents who were unopposed for the party’s nomination.

Benham said she sought the endorsement this year “because I have invested a lot of time and energy organizing a network of incredible volunteers in this district, and a lot of those volunteers also chose to run for the Democratic committee,” and she wanted to be part of that effort.

Veteran committee members and newcomers alike said the party’s direction had shifted as it had become more demographically diverse. But Benham said part of the shift was “from folks who have changed their minds” about the new crop of leadership.

“I have spoken with people who may not have supported me before," she said. "And I wouldn’t be unopposed if they were against me now.”

The event took place at the headquarters of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters in the South Side, a smaller facility than the IBEW Local 5 facility nearby that the committee used in previous years. That, combined with the small number of contested races, led to a modest event despite the crucial election year — as well as complaints about parking.

There was no "rope line," a practice in which candidates are corralled together to shake hands with committee members just outside the voting place. But campaigns did have tables set up outside the building, offering baked goods and other treats to committee members.

Offerings were modest, with none of the TV giveaways or free Bloody Marys that accompanied last year’s endorsement gathering. But while the average voter pays more attention in presidential races, the competition for the party endorsement is usually more heated in odd-year elections, when there are more races on the ballot and the committee’s backing can differentiate candidates in a race where voters aren’t paying attention.

Still, some gamesmanship was in evidence Sunday: Patel's family had a food truck parked just outside the event — the trucks are a family business that plays a prominent role in Patel's biography — that offered samosas and mango lassis. And in a race where Patel has accused some critics of an animus towards Indian-Americans, Lee's camp also ordered out for samosas.

Drama was otherwise limited, with the exception of a protest by a handful of demonstrators who confronted Congressman Chris Deluzio about his support for Israel during the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

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.