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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Voter guide to Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District Democratic primary: Lee vs. Patel

What’s at stake: First-term Congresswoman Summer Lee’s bid for re-election is arguably the marquee primary race in Western Pennsylvania. Lee has helped lead a progressive transformation in local politics, while challenger Bhavini Patel has sharply questioned Lee’s criticism of Israel and argued that the district needs a representative willing to close ranks with President Joe Biden. The race is a microcosm of a debate between progressive and more moderate Democrats nationwide — all for a seat that includes the city of Pittsburgh, some Allegheny County suburbs, and a portion of Westmoreland County. Republican James Hayes, who faces no rival on the GOP ballot, should meet the winner this fall.

District map:

Further reading:
"Patel wins Squirrel Hill community endorsement, as war in Gaza casts shadow" (Chris Potter, WESA)
"The Israel-Hamas war has become a defining issue of Lee-Patel Democratic primary for Congress" (Chris Potter, WESA)
"Allegheny County Democrats endorse Summer Lee over Bhavini Patel" (Chris Potter, WESA)
"Summer Lee and Bhavini Patel clash over the Middle East in raucous forum" (Oliver Morrison, WESA)


Summer Lee

Rep.-elect Summer Lee, D-Pa., speaks to reporters following a news conference with Congressional Progressive Caucus members at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
/
AP
Summer Lee

Lee has been a progressive champion ever since her first run for state House in 2018. Her 2022 bid to replace retiring longtime House member Mike Doyle made her the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. But it was closely contested, in large part because of opposition from pro-Israel groups who spent millions to thwart her. Lee’s criticism of Israel during the war in Gaza has been a top issue of this campaign as well, but she maintains her unflinching support of progressive causes and long-neglected communities while touting her success at bringing federal dollars back to the district.

Party: Democratic
Place of residence: Swissvale
Education: B.A., Penn State University; J.D., Howard University; Woodland Hills School District
Current occupation: U.S. Congresswoman, 12th Congressional District
Relevant Experience: Elected to Pennsylvania House in 2018, became Pennsylvania’s first Black congresswoman in 2022. Currently serves on Oversight and Science committees.
Supporters/endorsements: Lee’s supporters include a host of labor groups, including the state AFL-CIO and individual locals ranging from the SEIU to teachers unions and the Teamsters. She’s backed by a number of progressive, environmental and reproductive-rights advocacy groups, as well as the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and elected officials ranging from House Democratic leadership to Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, and other state and local officials.
Links: Website | Facebook | X | Instagram
Total fundraising (as of 3/21/24):
Total raised (2024): No campaign finance reports for 2024 (2023 ending cash balance: $1,169,084)
Total spent (2024): No campaign finance reports for 2024

WESA Candidate Survey

What is the most important thing the federal government could do for your district, and how would you make it happen if you were elected to Congress?
PA-12’s deteriorating infrastructure is, as the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse demonstrated, an urgent crisis. Through tireless advocacy and partnership with the Biden administration and our incredible local leaders — we’ve helped deliver over $1.2 billion in federal funding to PA-12, largely for desperately needed infrastructure projects. We must aggressively go after the remaining funding and our team knows how to bring those resources home.

Also, to save democracy, protect abortion rights and prevent my constituents’ voices from being drowned out by billionaires like Jeffrey Yass, we must pass comprehensive campaign finance, transparency, and anti-corruption reform to get money out of politics.

Western Pennsylvania has long been a center of energy production, with both prosperous times AND environmental scars to show for it. Describe the federal energy policy that you think would address environmental concerns and the needs of workers.
In this energy transition, we must protect workers, grow our economy, clean our air and water, and keep energy prices low. I joined the Science, Space and Technology Committee to fight for federal investments Western PA needs to lead the country in accelerating innovation in sustainable, affordable energy production that creates union jobs. We helped deliver a $398 million DOE loan to local green manufacturer EOS that advances clean energy storage, creating 1000+ jobs in our region. I’ve brought unions, electeds, and industry leaders together to achieve these goals — and built the largest coalition to rise to this challenge.

Since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, there have been proposals to legislate abortion rights from the national level, with ideas that range from codifying Roe in law to establishing nationwide restrictions on abortion access. Do you favor NATIONAL legislation on abortion, and if so, what do you think that law should look like? 
I wholeheartedly support federal legislation to codify our abortion rights and protect reproductive freedoms nationwide. Roe was always the floor and in Western Pennsylvania, abortion access was never reality for Black, brown, poor, or rural folks — with financial barriers and too few clinics. National legislation would look like bills I’ve already co-sponsored and helped introduce like the Women’s Health Protection Act guaranteeing abortion across and comprehensive reproductive health care nationwide, EACH Act overturning the racist Hyde amendment, Protecting Access to Medication Abortion Act, and the Reproductive Health Care Accessibility Act eliminating barriers to reproductive health for our disabled community.

Two United States allies, Ukraine and Israel, are embroiled in conflict, and there is heated debate over the role the United States should play in those conflicts. Do you support providing aid to those countries, and under what conditions? More generally, what role should Congress play in setting of foreign policy?
Our greatest foreign policy strength is our diplomatic power. We can resolve conflict without war if we prioritize diplomatic solutions. In Congress, I have and continue to support aid to Ukraine as they suffer from Putin’s deadly war. Since Hamas’ horrific 10/7 attack, Netanyahu has failed to bring home hostages, killed over 30,000 Palestinians, displaced 1.7 million, and brought widespread famine to Gaza — condemned by the UN, international humanitarian organizations, and President Biden. Any country receiving US taxpayer-funded aid cannot violate our Leahy Law or international humanitarian law, so I cannot support more blank checks to Netanyahu’s military.

National politics has rarely seemed as polarized as it does right now. If you were re-elected to Congress, do you think you'd have a responsibility for doing something about that, and what in your background suggests you could reach across that divide?
Trump’s Republican Party has divided our nation more than ever. Whether it's wasting taxpayer dollars attacking President Biden’s son or cutting Social Security and SNAP benefits, everyday people pay the price for their dysfunction. Pennsylvanians across party lines want the same things: representatives who show up for work and deliver to make life better for their families. Despite the dysfunction, I’m proud that my Abandoned Wells Remediation Act, that protects our communities from methane emissions, passed through committee on a unanimous, bipartisan vote. I’m also proud to have delivered $12 million in community project funding in a Republican-led budget.


Bhavini Patel

Bhavini Patel.
Patel campaign
Bhavini Patel

Patel is running a campaign that stresses her life story as the daughter of a single mother who immigrated from India to run a food truck business, and the first member of her family to attend college. She recently served as an aide to former Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and she ran briefly for the 12th Congressional District seat in 2022 before withdrawing. But this year, she’s been running a pugnacious campaign that attacks Lee as too far to the left, too critical of Israel in a district that includes a sizable Jewish population, and not supportive enough of President Biden.

Party: Democratic
Place of residence: Edgewood
Education: BPhil International Area Studies, Sociology and Africana Studies, University of Pittsburgh; MPhil International Relations, University of Oxford
Current occupation:  Edgewood Council member
Relevant experience: Cofounder and CEO of Beamdata, which connected voters with elected officials. Edgewood Borough Council member, former Community Outreach Manager for Allegheny County. Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Advisory Board member and Biden delegate in the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Supporters/endorsements: Patel is backed by a number of unions, particularly in the building trades, including local heavyweights Steamfitters Local #449 and Operating Engineers Local #66 and IBEW Local #5. She’s also supported by more than 30 current and former local officials as well as the Chartiers Valley Democratic Committee.
Links: Website | Facebook | X | Instagram
Total fundraising (as of 3/21/24):
Total raised (2024): No campaign finance reports for 2024 (2023 ending cash balance: $238,112)
Total spent (2024): No campaign finance reports for 2024

WESA Candidate Survey

What is the most important thing the federal government could do for your district, and how would you make it happen if you were elected to Congress?
I’ve dedicated my career to serving our region including working for Allegheny County, serving on local council, and serving on the PA Medical Marijuana Advisory Board as an appointee of Senator Jay Costa. Being in touch with our region is important. As a council member, I’m deeply passionate about addressing our region's old housing. We are disproportionately impacted, which has implications for communities historically disinvested from. Blighted homes erode local tax bases and negatively impacts our students and ability to attract young talent. Recently, Senator Fetterman introduced the Whole-Home Repairs Program. I will champion this bill in the House and ensure we invest in our housing.

Western Pennsylvania has long been a center of energy production, with both prosperous times AND environmental scars to show for it. Describe the federal energy policy that you think would address environmental concerns and the needs of workers.
I serve on Sustainable Pittsburgh’s board, which has provided me with a nuanced approach to Western PA’s role in the energy industry. We’re home to innovation potential that can drive a national effort towards achieving renewable energy goals, while creating good-paying union jobs, lowering emissions and investing in our children’s future. We can do better with collaborative leadership. This will require bold federal investments in climate adaptation, especially given our older infrastructure and housing. It also requires us to win monumental opportunities such as the Tech Hub Designation from the CHIPS and Science Act. We were recently not selected. That investment would’ve allowed us to catalyze clean energy investment.

Since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, there have been proposals to legislate abortion rights from the national level, with ideas that range from codifying Roe in law to establishing nationwide restrictions on abortion access. Do you favor NATIONAL legislation on abortion, and if so, what do you think that law should look like?
As a dedicated abortion rights advocate, I absolutely favor national legislation on abortion. I urge the enactment of national legislation to codify Roe v. Wade's safeguards in order to better safeguard against Republicans using abortion access as a political football. This legislation must guarantee every person’s right to make their own healthcare decisions, ensuring access to abortion across the US without the undue burden of restrictive state laws. Only by enacting a clear and consistent framework that respects bodily autonomy and health can we uphold the principles of equality and dignity in reproductive healthcare, thus preserving these fundamental rights for all, irrespective of their location.

Two United States allies, Ukraine and Israel, are embroiled in conflict, and there is heated debate over the role the United States should play in those conflicts. Do you support providing aid to those countries, and under what conditions? More generally, what role should Congress play in setting of foreign policy?
I support the Senate's foreign aid package. I recognize the importance of supporting Ukraine and Israel, alongside humanitarian aid for regions like Gaza and the West Bank, amidst conflict. Aid should be strategically used for defense and peace-building, under conditions that respect human rights and contribute to regional stability. As a member of Congress, I will advocate for our role in shaping foreign policy, ensuring such aid reflects our national values and strategic interests. Through bipartisan dialogue and oversight, Congress can ensure that our international support serves as a beacon of democracy and peace, reinforcing our global leadership and commitment to our allies in times of need.

National politics has rarely seemed as polarized as it does right now. If you were elected to Congress, do you think you'd have a responsibility for doing something about that, and what in your background suggests you could reach across that divide?
I grew up in a working-class family and believe in the power of the American Dream — we must protect it. I was raised by a single-mother from India, who dreamed of a better future for my brother and I. She became a small-business owner opening a food truck on Pitt’s campus. My family has been running that business for 25 years. I was the first to graduate from college and earned my Master’s from Oxford. Democracy is fragile and fringe extremism erodes the ability to deliver on the very issues uplifting working-class communities. Holding onto the promise of the American Dream requires uplifting diverse voices, building on collaboration and rejecting extremism.

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.