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As Lee and Patel battle over 12th District, McKeesport voters worry about issues far from Gaza

A Black man stands in front of a white pickup truck.
90.5 WESA
Oliver Morrison
Eric Barlow is most worried about infrastructure, including repairing a closed McKeesport bridge. He didn't remember either candidates name unprompted but said he would vote for Summer Lee after hearing her name.

The war in Gaza has dominated media coverage of the race for the Democratic primary nomination for the 12th Congressional district, where first-term incumbent Summer Lee faces challenger Bhavini Patel in the April 23 primary. But many voters in the district say their concerns lie closer to home.

In McKeesport, for example, the Versailles Avenue Bridge has been closed since 2022 because of its deteriorating condition. So far, the only money that has been allocated has been to come up with a design for how to fix it, and there is no clear timetable for when it will be rebuilt.

Mary Page, of neighboring White Oak, said the delay is her biggest concern. “There's money allotted for it but nothing's going on yet,” she said. “I go to doctor's appointments in McKeesport, and you have to go around the other way.”

McKeesport’s roughly 17,000 residents still largely vote Democratic: Biden received 64% of the vote in 2020 and Lee received 60% when she was elected in November 2022. But the Mon Valley town was hit hard by the collapse of big steel and never recovered: Only a third as many residents live there today as did its peak in the 1950s. That has left many neighborhoods with unsightly abandoned houses and empty storefronts, some roads littered with potholes and even a sinkhole that a pedestrian fell into last month while walking to a gas station.

The community was a bellwether when Lee first ran for the office in 2022: In the Democratic primary that year, Lee won only 29 more votes in McKeesport than her closest challenger, Steve Irwin. And for the people who are part of daily life there, the politics behind their decision in the race are frequently local.

WESA spoke with more than two dozen residents or regular visitors to the community outside some of the businesses that still remain. When asked about the issues that concern them, only one brought up the war in Gaza — a Republican who won’t be voting in the April primary. Almost everyone brought up rising prices, especially for groceries, gas and housing. Many expressed concerns about issues like public safety and potholes … and several voters whose opinions have changed the most since 2022 seem to be drawing on TV ads as a key source of information about the race.

An older white man smiles while wearing a purple shirt and black jacket.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Ted Gibala is a registered Democrat but said he sometimes splits his vote between parties. He's most worried about rising prices, especially for people like himself on fixed incomes.

“I think the candidate who shows up, who talks about the issues that are important to that community and really shows a genuine interest, will win there,” said Lt. Gov Austin Davis, a McKeesport native who served as a state representative for the area.

“In other parts of the district, I think there are more ideological pockets,” Davis added. “I don't think McKeesport in the [Mon] Valley is similar in that way.

‘They need to fix our stuff too’

Indeed, some voters said the area simply needed more investment, and worried it had been forgotten.

Eric Barlow said he saw the help Baltimore is getting to rebuild the Francis Scott Key bridge, which collapsed after being struck by a container ship, and where President Joe Biden has promised to “move heaven and earth” to get it rebuilt. Barlow said he wished there was similar urgency about McKeesport’s needs

“We got bridges over here that's falling apart,” said Barlow, who is nearly 60 and lives on his disability benefits. “We got sinkholes in the street next to the bridge. They need to fix our stuff too.”

Barlow said he’d probably support Lee this spring: “I heard her name,” he said, though he didn't remember it until being reminded of it by a reporter.

Kimberly Currington moved from the North Side of Pittsburgh into a shelter in McKeesport in February, she said, and she wants politicians to focus on housing and homelessness, an issue Lee has highlighted. “Kids right here in the United States [are] going hungry at night,” Currington said. “Why can't Homestead be equal to Squirrel Hill?”

Currington supports Lee “because she’s a young, Black intelligent woman.”

A Black man stands in front of a white pickup truck.
90.5 WESA
Oliver Morrison
Eric Barlow is most worried about infrastructure, including repairing a closed McKeesport bridge. He didn't remember either candidates name unprompted but said he would vote for Summer Lee after hearing her name.

Lee got similar plaudits from Lisa Carroll, who takes a bus from McKeesport to Oakland, where she’s a cashier at Carnegie Mellon. She’s most worried about rising prices, especially groceries, gas and childcare. She likes to see women like Lee in positions of power. “She's great and I'm not sure who she's running against but it would be good to see a woman in power like we have,” Carroll said. “Kamala Harris, I think she's great as well.”

But some other voters were less supportive. Kevin Pitts said that as a Black man, he felt President Joe Biden has been historically important, having selected the first Black woman as vice president and nominated the first Black woman to the US Supreme Court. But while Pitts said he previously supported Lee, the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, he doesn’t think she’s supported Biden enough on infrastructure.

“I’ve seen things she did against Biden,” he said. “I’m a big Biden fan and I'm a big [Senator John] Fetterman fan, so I'm not going with Summer Lee right now.

Jim Obley credits Biden’s focus on infrastructure improvements with lowering the unemployment rate and he thinks inflation is coming down as well. He’s worried that Donald Trump would rule like a dictator in a second term. But Obley, who lives in North Versailles and was in McKeesport, echoed Pitts’ complaint about Lee.

“Summer Lee didn't support Biden's infrastructure,” he said. “She's radical left.”

Lee wasn’t in Congress at the time that Biden’s infrastructure legislation was passed, and she hasn’t publicly said if she would have voted for it or not. Her criticism of the bill boils down to a Pittsburgh City Paper interview in which she said she thought it should have included more spending. Since she was elected, Lee has been touting federal resources that she’s helped steer toward her district.

Still, Patel and some outside groups have waged an advertising campaign that attacks Lee with this very message — that Lee had not supported Biden fully, including on legislation that made some of those investments possible.

“Summer Lee wants to dismantle the Democratic Party, undermine President Joe Biden and even abolish the police," one Patel ad says.

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‘It’s scary to a lot of people’

That message plays on a core concern in areas like McKeesport, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Allegheny County — though as with infrastructure it’s an issue where voter perceptions are being shaped by negative ads.

Jay Johnson, for one, said he won’t vote for Lee this time because of advertisements he saw that say Lee wants to “defund the police.” He agrees that “there are some bad cops out there” but said, “If we defund the police, then what happens when you really need their help and they don't respond?”

Not everyone thinks defunding the police would be a bad idea: Walmart maintenance worker Andrew Wise, for one, said he supports shunting resources from policing to provide more resources to support services for people struggling with their mental health.

“It's scary to a lot of people but at the same time, it opens the door for a lot of systems that are better suited to address the kind of issues that we are sending the police after,” he said.

A woman wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt stands in a parking lot.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Lisa Carroll is proud to support women in power like Summer Lee and Kamala Harris.

The Moderate PAC, the largest outside-spending group in the race, has run an ad saying Lee wants to defund the police as part of a “socialist agenda." The group has reported spending more than a half-million dollars in the race so far, and aired at least two ads attacking Lee and backing Patel on local TV stations.

But Lee has pushed back on the “defunding” label. In a television debate earlier this month, Lee denied that she’s advocating for defunding the police. Lee said she supports providing additional resources to communities, not taking it away from police.

”The only thing we've consistently said about policing is that we know for true community safety, policing is not the beginning or the end of that,” Lee said.

In the past, Lee has defended the “defund” movement from criticism because she said there was a need for real police reforms, and other efforts had been blocked. As a legislator she proposed legislation to clarify when police can use deadly force, for example, but not legislation to take money away from police.

Michael Canterbury is a registered Democrat who said he has voted for Republicans in the last three presidential elections. Lee, he said, “wanted to let all the criminals and everything go and all that stuff.”

But Canterbury, a retired carpenter, said he’d probably sit out this race entirely in the upcoming primary. While he doesn’t like Lee, he also doesn’t know who is running against her.

‘The status quo is what needs to change’

In fact, while Lee’s reelection must contend with the advertising campaign against her, Patel’s challenge in McKeesport appears to be that many voters barely recognize her at all. Only five of the 27 voters who spoke to WESA said they knew who Patel is. Only one, Obley, knew her name without prompting, although he couldn’t remember how it was pronounced.

Johnson did remember Lee was facing a challenger who “was raised by a single mother” — an often-cited part of Patel’s biography. Of Patel he said “she'd been serving in a political arena in one capacity, in one way or another” but couldn’t remember how. (Patel has served as an aide to former county execcutive Rich Fitzgerald and serves on Edgewood's borough council.)

An white man wearing sunglasses and a gray coat stands in a parking lot.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Jim Obley plans to vote for Bhavani Patel because he doesn't think Summer Lee has supported President Joe Biden's efforts to improve the area's infrastructure. Lee has faced attack ads raising this issue that were funded by a Republican-supported PAC.

Wise couldn’t remember Patel’s name but said he wouldn’t vote for her, because he felt like she represented politics as usual.

“The status quo is what needs to change,” he said. “The status quo is gonna keep everything getting worse.

But judging from voters in McKeesport, the advertisements attacking Lee have had an effect. Moderate PAC’s campaign, for one, has received backing from Philadelphia-area hedge fund manager Jeff Yass, a prominent supporter of Republican causes. According to filings by the PAC, Yass has donated $800,000 to the group so far, making him far and away the largest contributor to its $1 million in revenue.

Johnny Walker (who said he’s been teased about his name even though it’s spelled slightly differently than the alcohol) said the attacks on Lee have a loose relationship to the facts. He said Patel is “twisting them around” in a way that reminds him of former President Donald Trump.

He plans to vote for Lee.

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.