Democrats Mike Doyle and Jerry Dickinson faced off Wednesday evening in what quickly became a heated debate, as the Congressional candidates sparred over racial inequality in Pittsburgh, and traded barbs over who was more progressive.
Things begin heated following opening remarks and questions about the Congressional response to the coronavirus pandemic. WTAE moderator Shannon Perrine asked the candidates what racism means in the 18th District, and how each candidate would help address racial inequity.
“This region has become the least livable region for African-American women,” said challenger Jerry Dickinson, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.“That’s happened under Mr. Doyle’s watch. We are losing our black population every single year due to unemployment, and we are dealing with gentrification displacement all throughout this district.”
Dickinson cited a 2019 report from the Pittsburgh Gender and Equity Commission, that showed poor outcomes for people of color in the region. One of the most widely-shared findings from the report noted that black women would improve their quality of life simply by moving elsewhere.
“Did this happen on my watch?” Doyle responded. “This happened on all of our watches.”
Doyle, who has represented the Pittsburgh region for 25 years, said he has seen racial disparities in Pittsburgh and was “shocked and saddened” by the report.
“I’ve been a partner, friend and ally to the black community,” Doyle said. While he acknowledged that there was work to do, “We have constantly tried to level the playing field in education, in health care, in criminal justice reform."
Doyle pointed to his collaboration with the Pittsburgh NAACP chapter, the Black Political Empowerment Project, and elected officials of color to demonstrate his work with the black community.
But Dickinson said the question was not whether Doyle “had done something, it’s whether he’s done enough.”
“You heard him say he was a partner, a friend and ally,” said Dickinson, who has been backed by a number of prominent local African Americans. “You missed something: an advocate.”
As the debate wore on, the candidates revisited issues like climate change and Medicare for All. Throughout, Dickinson sought to fault Doyle for regional problems like the area's poor air quality, and to portray Doyle as out of touch with the district.
But Doyle lodged some attacks of his own, at one point charging that Dickinson was a "very recent convert" to supporting Medicare for All, a proposal Doyle said he'd backed for over a decade. Doyle noted a 2019 profile piece in which Dickinson -- who has campaigned as the more progressive choice -- expressed misgivings about the Medicare proposal. In the piece, Dickinson expresses concern about the proposal's cost and its impact on existing insurers before concluding, "We have to work within the framework we have."
Doyle and Dickinson also traded jabs over their campaign contributors. Dickinson faulted Doyle for receiving money from corporate political committees in the energy and other industries, while Doyle said Dickinson's contributors included lawyers who represented Wall Street and other industries.
As the debate wound down, Dickinson used his closing remarks to take aim once again at Doyle’s time in Congress.
“Mr. Doyle is not a work horse,” Dickinson said. “He’s a dead horse. He’s a backbencher for the Democratic Party. He’s not a leader.”
Doyle, who has represented the Pittsburgh area for more than two decades, said his work in Congress has contributed to the city’s transformation.
“Nobody’s worked harder for this region that Mike Doyle has,” Doyle said. “I’m up to the task and I want to continue to work hard for this city.”
The 18th District includes Pittsburgh and surrounding municipalities like Plum, Monroeville, Jefferson Hills and McKeesport.
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and broadcast on WTAE.
The primary is June 2. County officials encourage all voters to vote by mail to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Pennsylvanians can apply to vote-by-mail online at votespa.com. The deadline to apply is May 26 at 5 p.m. Completed ballots must be received by the election division by 8 p.m. on election night.