In the run-up to the 2020 election, Democrats struggled to pick the national face of the party: a more moderate candidate in Joe Biden or a more radical choice in Bernie Sanders.
This spring, there’s a similar decision facing Pittsburghers, who will choose between incumbent Mike Doyle and progressive challenger Jerry Dickinson.
Representing a Changing District
Mike Doyle was first elected in 1995 to what was then a moderate suburban district. He supported unions and took a tough vote against the Iraq war after Sept. 11, 2001. Less than 10 years later, he secured crucial votes for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, by convincing fellow pro-life House Democrats to support it.
“There were [pro-life] members that I knew well, that knew I wasn’t going to go running to the media about it,” Doyle said. “They had some concerns that were serious, and I wanted to see the bill passed. I was close to about three or four of them and they brought the others into the room.”
Doyle's district has been redrawn since then to center on Pittsburgh, and includes boroughs and municipalities that surround the city, including McKeesport, Jefferson Hills, Monroeville and Plum.
“It started out as a suburban swing seat, and I didn’t represent any of the city of Pittsburgh for my first eight years,” said Doyle. “But then my district got merged into the city and became much more a blue district, a much more Democratic district."
Some of Doyle’s positions have shifted too. Early in his career, he voted for a bill that would fine or imprison doctors who performed so-called "partial-birth" abortions. And he voted against other bills regarding funding for the procedure. But his voting record in recent years has gotten an A rating from Planned Parenthood.
“I was one of these people who sort of fell in the middle [on abortion],” he said. “I’ve never been for prohibiting abortion, but I did believe we shouldn’t use federal dollars to do it and I’ve since changed my mind on that.”
‘You can take risks’
That’s where progressive challenger Jerry Dickinson comes in. Dickinson grew up in the foster care system with 10 brothers and sisters in Shaler Township.
“Some of our parents had been murdered, some of our parents were addicts, some of our parents were incarcerated,” Dickinson said. “This is the world I come from, and the world I still operate in in many ways, and I think that’s a very valuable experience to bring into politics today.”
Today, he’s a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Swissvale. Dickinson said he’s running on ideas that are crucial right now, like a Medicare for All proposal that would replace most private insurance with the government system seniors rely on.
“If you don’t have to worry about a Republican unseating you, you can be big and bold and take risks,” he said. “Everyone should be looking toward this district to lead the country as we move forward with the climate crisis, Medicare for All, and getting corporate money out of politics.”
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, Dickinson worries that premiums will skyrocket and that not everyone will be able to afford care.
“Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, we need a leader who is firmly committed to Medicare for All,” Dickinson said.
Although Doyle backs Medicare for All too, Dickinson says Doyle “isn’t leading the national conversation.”
“He’ll put his name on a healthcare reform bill, but he’s never boldly advocated for the measure,” Dickinson said. “When he does speak about health care, he is passive and noncommittal on the details.”
Doyle called that claim false and silly. He said he supports many bills to expand health care access, like legislation to allow anyone over the age of 50 to opt in to Medicare.
“I don’t need someone who doesn't have much information or knowledge about this to analyze if I’ve been pushing for the program,” Doyle said.
Doyle said Congress doesn’t have time to talk about sweeping ideas like Medicare for All during the pandemic. There are more immediate concerns, he said, like getting protective equipment to health care workers.
'You have to be realistic'
The candidates also clash on climate change. Dickinson supports the Green New Deal, a proposal to drastically cut the country’s use of fossil fuels. He said Doyle’s approach is too modest.
“Low-key, incremental steps. It’s OK to be OK,” Dickinson said. “No, no, no. I support the Green New Deal which is an aggressive effort to get to a carbon free economy by 2030. Urgency.”
But Doyle notes that the goals in the Green New Deal are non-binding without other laws.
“I’m actually doing legislation that’s going to put renewables on the grid and over time lessen the need for fossil fuels on the grid – mainly natural gas. But this happens over a period of years,” Doyle said. “You have to be realistic about what’s possible. And then the other thing is: If you can’t get the votes to do this, what have you done?”
Doyle's seat may be safe for Democrats, but he worries about more moderate districts – like Conor Lamb’s next door – that are more vulnerable than his own. He says if the party adopts proposals like the Green New Deal, it could alienate moderate voters and cost Democrats the House.
“If we re-elect Donald Trump because we have turned large swaths of our constituency to the Republican Party over a resolution that has no chance of passing, then what we will have done is do absolutely nothing to address climate change,” Doyle said. “That would be a disaster.”
Some progressive groups seem wary of making a change. Dickinson has received endorsements from former state Democratic Party chair Jim Burn and county councilor Liv Bennett. But Doyle’s been backed by groups like the Sierra Club and Squirrel Hill's 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club. Ron Gaydos heads the latter group, which is one of the most left-leaning in the region. He said the uncertainty of the political climate makes picking a new representative riskier.
“This is really a crisis of democracy and the future of the country economically, environmentally,” he said. “[There’s a] new crisis every day. Like, should we really change the member of Congress now?”
The primary is June 2.