Summer Lee is a Bernie-Sanders-backed progressive who has tweeted against US politicians’ support for Israel and in favor of a “plan … to dismantle [the Democratic Party].” She has also publicly called out President Biden for “casual racism.”
Polls show her in the lead for the Democratic nomination in Western Pennsylvania’s District 12 Congressional race ahead of the May 17 Pennsylvania primary.
Many Democratic leaders view Lee, a graduate of Howard University law school who in 2018 won a landslide election to Pennsylvania’s state house, as a rising Democratic star. Her political journey to Washington DC, many believe, will inevitably see her join “Squad” members like Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — both of whom endorsed her last week.
But a determined pocket of Pennsylvania voters says not so fast.
At a time when Senate Democrats wield a razor-thin majority and 30 Democratic incumbents have announced retirement, midterms pitting moderates against hard-left upstarts will heavily shape Congress for years to come. Which is why Pennsylvania’s primary is viewed by many as a key race in the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.
The election will fill a seat vacated by Mike Doyle, the Democratic incumbent from District 12 — which includes Pittsburgh — who is retiring after 27 years, leaving the recently redistricted seat open.
Lee’s views on Israel have become a primary flashpoint; so much so that a campaign has been underway since March to persuade pro-Israel Pittsburghers to vote for Steve Irwin. An attorney from Squirrel Hill, the heart of the city’s Jewish community, Irwin is Lee’s strongest competitor for the Democratic nomination.
The volunteer effort — manned by teachers, businesspeople, attorneys, nurses, doctors, and housewives — is grassroots, and, according to Charles Saul, a Pittsburgh attorney and co-organizer, not funded or promoted by any organization.
Although the pro-Irwin push is aimed primarily at Democrats, organizers have added an intriguing twist: Asking Republican and Independent voters to switch their party affiliation (at least for the election) to vote for Irwin, who is widely viewed as pro-Israel. In a deep blue region where Democratic dominance is all but absolute (“No Republican can get elected here,” one voter told me) — this is a truly radical idea.
But not entirely unexpected. Antisemitism has become a particularly “home-town” issue in Pittsburgh following the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, which killed 11 worshippers. Israel’s Spring 2021 incursion into Gaza — which Lee condemned — also saw progressive Democrats take increasingly harder-line stances against Israel. Former President Donald Trump’s relocation of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2017 further established Israel as a partisan issue — as did the BLM movement, which has taken a pro-Palestinian position, characterizing Israel as an “apartheid” state. Israel is also experiencing a renewed wave of terror attacks, further raising security concerns among potential voters.
According to Saul, Irwin offers moderate and conservative-leaning voters a voice that has long been denied them. “This is a deep blue district, so for anyone to have any meaningful vote … whether it is for mayor or Congress, you have to register as a Democrat,” regardless of your views, said the 72-year-old, who believes the last-ditch effort has influenced several hundred area voters to support Irwin.
Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, a charitable nonprofit serving the Jewish community, held public interviews with all of the candidates in April. Saul, who attended Lee’s event, said she came across as “bright…and likable” but that only makes her “more dangerous.”
He is concerned that Lee’s endorsers include Sanders, Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), whom “I consider to be an anti-Semite.”
But it’s not just Lee’s associations. Most alarming, Saul contends, are her views.
He pointed to a past tweet in which Lee compared Gazans, in the context of Hamas’ terrorist bombing campaign in May 2021, to black Americans in terms of oppression. Saul also objects to Lee’s defense of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to economically isolate Israel. (Lee maintains that she is “not a part of” the BDS movement.)
Andrea Chester, an English composition instructor at Allegheny Community College in Pittsburgh, fears that if Lee is elected, she will join radical forces.
“It’d be really bad to have someone else be part of the Squad,” Chester said. “They…don’t understand Israel’s need for self-defense.” Chester sent out several dozen e-mails attempting to persuade Republicans to change parties and vote for Irwin.
Cheryl Moore, 57, a nurse and research program manager at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is a Democrat who appealed to fellow Democrats to get out the vote for Irwin and also encouraged Republicans to cross party lines and support him. “This has been a grassroots effort asking for a little time to explain things,” Moore said.
The issue, for Moore, is one of extremism versus moderation.
“Lee is going to intensify partisanship, but Irwin is a listener, a negotiator, and a bridge builder,” Moore said. “I can admire revolutionaries like Lee, but I think it’s the Dr. Kings —not the Malcolm X’s — who get more accomplished.”