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Summer Lee defeats Bhavini Patel in Democratic primary for 12th Congressional District

A woman speaks into a microphone.
Rebecca Droke
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee speaks with supporters after her victory in the Democratic primary election on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, Downtown. Lee defeated challenger Bhavini Patel in the primary race to represent the 12th Congressional District.

First-term U.S. Rep. Summer Lee held off a spirited primary challenge from Bhavini Patel in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District on Tuesday after a race that drew national attention and was overshadowed by an international crisis.

Meanwhile, in the 14th Congressional District next door, Democrat Chris Dziaidos defeated Ken Bach, winning the chance to challenge the Republican incumbent, GOP deputy whip Guy Reschenthaler, in the fall.

The 12th District is dominated by the city of Pittsburgh, but it includes a swath of Allegheny County suburbs and a portion of Westmoreland County. Lee won the seat, first weathering a difficult 2022 primary, after longtime House member Mike Doyle decided to retire. The Associated Press declared her the primary winner in her quest for a second term at 9:21 p.m. Tuesday.

In remarks to supporters at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, Downtown, Lee said the primary result proves "We are ready for bold solutions. We are ready for courageous leaders who lift up the most marginalized."

"We have rejected in this district [the idea] that you can't be a bold progressive in Western Pennsylvania," she said. "Because Western Pennsylvania — we say this all the time — is the blueprint for the nation. ... we're showing what it looks like to show up for the least of these."

On a broad range of issues ranging from reproductive rights to pro-union labor bills, Lee and Patel would likely have voted in lockstep. They share other similarities as well: Both are women of color — Lee is Black, Patel Indian-American — and live in adjoining suburbs, in a political environment long dominated by white men. But the race between them was fractious.

Lee has been a champion of a progressive reformation in local politics that was taking root at the time of her 2018 run against a more conservative long-time Democratic opponent, Paul Costa, for the seat representing the state House’s 34th District. That win was an early step in building a movement that led to Lee becoming the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. That progressive upsurge also carried two other progressives — Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey — into the county’s most powerful elected offices.

Patel, who competed in the 2022 primary briefly before withdrawing from a crowded field, followed a lower-profile approach. She previously worked as an aide to former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in addition to serving on the Edgewood Borough council.

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee speaks at a lectern.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee speaks with supporters after her victory in the Democratic primary election on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, Downtown.

Signs of tension were present even before the race got underway. During her campaign kick-off last September, Lee made a derisive remark about “40 Under 40” honorees, a thinly veiled shot at Patel, who by that point was already expected to run. And when Patel indeed launched her bid in early October, she foreshadowed the principal lines of attack that would come to define much of her campaign.

The district, she said, needed a representative who “can be a strong partner to our president” — and one who wouldn’t snub Israel.

Lee has long criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and previously sat out a speech to Congress by Israel’s president. She’s consistently voted against military aid for the country. That record came to the fore in the days following Patel’s launch, when Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel shocked the world.

Patel seized on such issues in a pair of contentious candidate forums. While Lee stood by her criticisms of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, she arguably stumbled at least once, withdrawing from a fundraiserfor a Muslim civil rights group on the other side of the state after homophobic and antisemitic remarks by other speakers came to light.

But as the campaign continued, Democrats expressed increasing concern about Israel’s military reprisal for the Hamas attacks — and for many voters, Israel was always a less-pressing issue than such matters as the need for infrastructure investment. On that score, Lee touted numerous federal investments in the district, often appearing alongside Biden administration officials to do so.

Such grip-and-grin events are a mainstay of politics, and for Lee, they also served as rebuttal evidence for the claim that the district was being hurt by differences with Biden. The president tacitly provided some testimony of his own during a visit to Pittsburgh last week. Biden name-dropped Lee while reciting a list of Democratic “folks who had my back” in Congress.

Patel also didn’t get the help amplifying that message that many expected her to receive from pro-Israel groups. Entities such as AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, spent millions to head off Lee’s 2022 win, and there were widespread expectations it would do so again this year.

"There were so many people who wanted to make this [race] a referendum on just one issue. And there were a lot of people who wanted to convince us that we could not be pro-peace and win in this district," Lee told supporters Tuesday night. "[But] for everybody who wants us to continue the politics of the past ... we are saying 'Come and join us. Our movement is expansive enough and big enough for each and every one of us ... It says the movement shows we can 'build peace from Pittsburgh to Palestine.'

"Our movement is connecting the dots," she added. "... and we are calling for a just and lasting peace here and everywhere. And we are not ashamed of that."

Patel did benefit from over $600,000 worth of ads attacking Lee financed by The Moderate PAC. But while she originally embraced the spending, it later emerged that those efforts were financed by hedge fund billionaire and longtime school-choice advocate Jeff Yass, a bete noire for many Democrats. While Patel denounced Yass, Lee and her allies, seized on that connection. And in any case, even $600,000 was well below what AIPAC had spent two years before.

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Lee, meanwhile, got an election-eve boost from fellow Congressional progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who told a roomful of supporters this past weekend that the race had national significance. Noting that progressives in other districts were being pressured by groups like AIPAC, she said, “Pittsburgh is the first [battleground] up. Tuesday is the first of the rest of these races” — and a chance for voters to send the message, “We see this game for what it is. Your money isn't good here anymore.”

In a statement Tuesday night, Patel said her campaign did not accomplish "the result we wanted tonight, but this race was far from a loss."

"The score doesn't always represent the principle at work. Or the importance of the mission," she said. "... This race was about so much more than me or my opponent. It was about passing common-sense laws that put money in working families' pockets. It was about standing up to hate and stopping antisemitism. And it was about making sure President Biden gets reelected in November."

The winner of the Democratic primary is almost certain to face Republican James Hayes, who ran unopposed for the GOP nomination, in November. But the district’s decidedly Democratic lean means Hayes begins with a tough hill to climb: Two years ago Lee bested her Republican rival — who had the same name as her longtime predecessor in the office, Mike Doyle — by more than 12 percentage points.

In a statement Tuesday night, Hayes promised to mount an "aggressive campaign" against Lee and what he called her "extreme positions."

“Summer Lee has kept company with antisemites such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and she remains a darling of the left fringe of a Democratic party that has ceased to represent the moderate, commonsense Democrats in the area,” he said.

“Tonight, I’m inviting those Democrats abandoned by the DSA-aligned cadre that has taken control of their party, to join me in sending a voice of reason to Congress on Nov. 5.”

14th Congressional District

Democrats Chris Dziados and Ken Bach ran a much lower-wattage contest to challenge Reschenthaler in a district that includes exurban and rural areas outside Pittsburgh. Both tout military backgrounds — Bach served in the U.S. Navy and Dziados in the U.S. Army — support abortion rights, and accuse Reschenthtaler of being detached from the needs of his district.

Auto shop owner Bach knows the challenges of competing in a Republican bastion: Although he’s been a school board member, he’s had two unsuccessful runs for the state House. Dziados said the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection by supporters of Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol inspired him to run.

Dziados now faces a tough climb in a deeply red district against a well-funded Republican: Between them, Bach and Dziados have raised roughly $30,000 this year: Reschenthaler raised close to $1.7 million.

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.