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Patel wins Squirrel Hill community endorsement, as war in Gaza casts shadow

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

The 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club endorsed Bhavini Patel in her bid to topple first-term Congresswoman Summer Lee Sunday, a potential sign that Lee's criticisms of Israel may be costing her support in one of the state's highest-profile Jewish communities.

In a statement, Patel said she was "honored to earn the endorsement of the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club. ... In Congress I will live up to their faith in me by delivering on our shared values, such as protecting a woman’s right to choose and passing stronger gun-control legislation."

The club did not release vote totals Sunday evening. But its endorsement was announced several hours after Lee and Patel both addressed club members Sunday afternoon, with Lee standing her ground on her criticisms of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Patel arguing that Democrats needed to rally around President Joe Biden in an election year.

The club numbers only a few hundred members. But they are active voters, party volunteers and campaign contributors, and have often championed more progressive candidates and causes.

The club also backed former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in a five-candidate race for attorney general, and incumbent House member Abigail Salisbury over challenger Ashley Comans.

Patel, who has previously been backed by building-trades unions, was quick to cite Sunday's win as proof of an ability to connect with voters across the ideological spectrum. She celebrated the club's addition to what she called a "coalition of unions, activists, and working families [that] will not only win in April but unite Democrats ... in November."

And with the war in Gaza casting a long shadow, the group’s backing carried some additional symbolic value: The 14th Ward includes Squirrel Hill, among the country’s largest and most storied Jewish enclaves.

The vote was preceded by an afternoon of speeches at the Schenley Park ice rink by candidates in statewide and local legislative races. In other circumstances, it might have been a homecoming for Lee, who noted in her speech that the club had backed her since a 2018 state House race in which “I was a political newcomer … whose biggest claim to fame was that I lived through persistent inequality, injustice, and all the racial biases that we have.”

Since then, “I’ve learned, I’ve grown, and I’ve really matured in some ways,” Lee said. “But the one thing I will say is that I have never changed.”

Lee touted a record of “building relationships with the Biden administration” to bring home money for lead-line replacement and other infrastructure needs. Such efforts, she said, contributed to a first term “that I believe everyone in this community can be proud of.”

Predictably, the afternoon's most heated exchange concerned Israel, and was prompted when an audience member asked Lee, “Do you believe that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza?”

“I think that words are often only important when we all have the same understanding of them,” Lee began. When the audience member began to say she was seeking a yes or no answer, Lee responded forcefully, “You’re not allowing me to speak.”

Lee did not use the word "genocide" in her answer and focused most of her criticism of the war on Netanyahu, saying that “his politics and his policies are incredibly concerning, I would say unconscionable.”

Lee said a growing coalition of human rights groups had raised alarms about Israel’s conduct of the war, and noted that several Congressional representatives recently returned from a tour of the region last month.

“They immediately said that how [Netanyahu] is conducting this war is unacceptable,” she said. “And I agree with them.”

For her part, Patel said her campaign was gaining “a tremendous amount of grassroots momentum," including the endorsement of more than three dozens local elected officials.

She ascribed that interest in part to her life story — a quintessentially American immigrant success tale — and the fact that “I want to push forward the promise of what this country has to offer [and] build the region forward."

Patel did not address, nor was she asked about, the conflict in Gaza. But in the closest thing to a direct call-out of her rival, Patel said that while she would have voted in favor of raising the debt ceiling last year, “What we have right now is somebody who voted with the Freedom Caucus.” (Lee has said she voted "no" because the deal was certain to pass, and she wanted to deny Republicans any more votes than necessary.)

And while Lee took credit for bringing home federal investment, Patel suggested she bore some responsibility for the fact that the region failed to be designated as a hydrogen hub or tech hub last fall.

Patel added, “I don’t think that being anti-Trump is enough, you have to be pro-President Biden,” who Patel called “one of the most, if not the most progressive and effective presidents our country has seen.”

Prior to Sunday, there had been concern from some Lee supporters that an influx of new club members this winter could tilt the vote away from her. Another ominous sign: an ad placed in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle days before the event in which more than 200 community leaders and citizens backed Patel as ”the best choice to represent Pennsylvania's 12th district.”

Earlier this year, Lee won the backing of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, made up of party insiders. Sunday's vote was an ironic reversal: When she first ran for Congress two years ago, Lee lost the backing of committee members to Steve Irwin, but won the support of the Club. This year the opposite happened — arguably a testament to how the progressive faction has been remaking the party itself, and to how misgivings remain about some elements of the progressive agenda.

In a sign of uneasiness about the fraught political climate, organizers posted a statement explaining “expectations of behavior” at Sunday's event. “We recognize and support your right to voice your opinion but disrupting the Meeting cannot be permitted,” said the statement, which invited any demonstrators to protest outside.

The two-and-a-half-hour-long event proceeded without disruption, with “polls” open to emailed ballots from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. The club used a ranked-choice voting system to choose in the multi-candidate attorney general race. The other endorsed candidates were:

U.S. Senate
Bob Casey

Pennsylvania Attorney General
Eugene DePasquale

Pennsylvania Auditor General
Malcolm Kenyatta

Pennsylvania Treasurer
Ryan Bizzarro

Pa. Senate 43rd District
Jay Costa

Pa. House 23rd District
Dan Frankel

Pa. House 34th District
Abigail Salisbury

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.