One of the most contentious primaries for the state House next week pits Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee against North Braddock borough councilor Chris Roland. While Lee is an ardent progressive, Roland says he favors a more moderate approach. Their race brings long-simmering tensions within the Democratic Party to the surface.
Lee easily won her first term in House District 34 over 20-year Democratic incumbent, Paul Costa, in 2018. That victory made Lee the first black woman from Allegheny County to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature, where she represents parts of the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh, along with some eastern suburbs.
The Swissvale resident thinks that as a state representative, she has shined a light on critical but long-overlooked issues.
“Like a Green New Deal, like single payer health care,” she said. “We've advanced around dignity for incarcerated women, around police accountability, all these kind of different issues that we've been talking about – a living wage, instead of just thinking about a minimum wage.”
With those stances, Lee has won support from service-workers unions, the Young Democrats of Allegheny County, and the Sierra Club, as well as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who sought the Democratic nomination for President this year.
Lee’s unapologetic advocacy, however, has sometimes caused friction with local trades unions and less progressive factions in her party. In fact, while local black legislators have rallied behind Lee, Roland won the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsement in February. It is virtually unheard of for the committee to snub an incumbent, according to veteran observers.
Roland also has the backing of Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, along with the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council. While recent campaign-finance reports were not available from the Department of State, Roland managed to amass a substantial war chest shortly after declaring his run late last year. Trades unions were among Roland’s biggest boosters, while Lee’s largest donations came from local activists and a political committee tied to SEIU Healthcare, a service-workers union.
‘He’s a listener’
Roland, who works as a supervisor at Allegheny County’s Round Hill Park and Exhibit Farm, has been a member of the North Braddock borough council since 2010. Like Lee, he supports abortion rights and stricter gun laws. But he portrays himself as more of a pragmatist.
“We just need a strong voice that’s going to sit and have a conversation with people that may have a different view of what they want to see,” Roland said.
For example, the candidate said, while he backs more rigorous regulations and taxes on natural gas drilling, he supports the fracking industry and welcomes manufacturing. Those sectors could help to revive some communities in the district, whose economic fortunes have withered since the fall of steel, Roland noted.
“I think that when you look at some of the manufacturing jobs that are in the district, a lot of the communities rely on that funding for their tax base,” he said.
Some of Roland’s supporters, like Braddock council president Robert Parker, think Roland's more centrist approach makes him better positioned to steer investment to the district.
“I think Chris will make a change. I think Chris will be easier to work with,” Parker said, “He’s a listener, and he wants to get things done.”
Lee, meanwhile, wants to halt fracking, at least until more is known about its health and environmental impacts. In recent years, her district has become increasingly diverse, and today one-quarter of its residents are black, compared to 11 percent statewide. The median income in the district is $44,000, compared to $55,000 for Pennsylvania as a whole.
Lee is concerned about the price racial minorities and the poor have already paid for industries whose pollution can harm public health.
“And it's not fair that our communities and communities like that are always made to make those sacrifices,” the lawmaker said, “always have to face those very difficult choices where we would probably like our community to go in a different direction.”
‘We need to fight for working-class folk, people of color’
Another place where the candidates differ is police accountability. The topic has received more attention since 2018, when an East Pittsburgh officer fatally shot black teenager Antwon Rose, who was unarmed.
Lee responded by seeking a host of reforms, like rewriting the rules on when police can use deadly force. Roland said he’d want to consult with police unions on that idea, but they’ve long resisted it.
Roland said one potential solution is to consolidate police departments. He’s working with municipal leaders in Braddock, East Pittsburgh, and Rankin in studying the concept, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. (Whitaker Borough once was part of the effort but has since dropped out.)
Roland thinks that, by pooling their resources, participating communities could increase officer pay, attract more talent, and provide better training.
“And our goal out of that was to have diversity in our department, transparency, accountability,” the candidate said.
He hopes such changes will improve police-community relations. But Lee said that to bridge those divisions in a lasting way, people from marginalized groups must help to shape more policies. And to facilitate that process, she said, the Democratic Party establishment should support more diverse candidates and stop resisting change within its ranks.
“It benefits them that things stay that way,” Lee said. “But the new ones come with new ideas and come with a new perspective. How do you integrate those two things?”
Lee’s supporters contend that neither the Democratic Party nor the legislature will change without grassroots pressure. Nicolas O’Rourke, Pennsylvania state organizing director for the Working Families Party, said his organization therefore is “not going to spare any expense” on helping Lee in her legislative race. He said his group communicates regularly with the lawmaker’s campaign and has helped to train personnel and conduct voter outreach.
“We need to fight for working-class folk and we need to fight for people of color. … There’s so much at stake here,” O’Rourke said. “And so, we are still committed to making sure that [Lee] – who has a vision for a cleaner and healthier, sustainable future – remains in office.”
There is no Republican on the ballot. The primary is June 2.