Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee (D) announced Tuesday that she is running for Congress, escalating the contest to fill a Pittsburgh-area seat a day after 14-term incumbent Rep. Mike Doyle (D) declared his plans to retire.
Lee, a progressive attorney and the first Black woman to represent southwest Pennsylvania in the state legislature, told HuffPost she feels compelled to run in what is currently the state’s 18th Congressional District so people who are “actually impacted by the crises we’re facing in this country” can shape the country’s future.
“We can’t afford to wait,” she said. “We have to build mass movements and engage the electorate in different ways. I have something to offer and contribute to that conversation.”
Lee, a two-term state representative, is backed by Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that mainly runs primary challengers against centrist and conservative Democrats in solid blue seats.
Although Lee will not be challenging a sitting member of Congress in the 2022 election cycle, she established an exploratory committee for Congress in August, and told HuffPost that she was prepared to challenge Doyle if he had stuck around. Lee won her first term in the state House of Representatives in 2018 when she ousted a more conservative 10-term incumbent Democrat.
If elected, Lee would be the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, and an energetic addition to the young, diverse bloc of progressive House members known as “the Squad.”
Lee supports the now-standard roster of progressive priorities, including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free public college, student debt cancellation and far-reaching criminal justice reform. She even stood by calls to reduce police funding in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when many other Democrats were getting cold feet.
Where Lee has distinguished herself is as a champion of intersectional approaches to each of these issues, focusing on the disproportionate impact of universal crises on historically marginalized groups. Her commitment to canceling student debt, she says, springs from her own experience as the daughter of a struggling single mother still burdened by more than $200,000 in college and law school debt.
“Black women and Black communities shoulder the burden of the student loan crisis,” Lee said. “We don’t have the generational wealth that some students come in with.”
“These are not theories in my head. This is my lived experience.”
“These are not theories in my head. This is my lived experience,” she added. “These fights are very real and tangible for me.”
Lee, a native of the economically distressed steel town North Braddock, has likewise played an active role in the movement for environmental justice, which focuses on the disproportionate effects of pollution and other ecological issues on vulnerable groups.
To that end, Lee has been outspoken in her criticism of the local natural gas and steel industries, which she faults for high asthma rates and other public health problems in the Mon Valley’s predominantly Black communities.
For example, Lee broke with Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a former Braddock mayor now running for Senate, with her opposition to a proposed fracking well on the grounds of the U.S. Steel plant in Braddock.
“We have been sold this idea that you can have jobs or you can have health, but not both. As a resident of the Mon Valley, I can tell you that’s not true,” said Lee, who now lives in Swissvale.
With her stance on fracking and advocacy for greater scrutiny of local industriess, Lee has made enemies in organized labor and the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, both of which declined to endorse her re-election in 2020.
Undeterred, Lee leans into her agitation for environmental justice in an announcement video that features footage of Mon Valley smokestacks and an indictment of the corporate executives “who make our kids sick with asthma, break our unions, and then blame us for the blight and crime.”
“Braddock’s story is America’s story: one America for the folks who benefit from division and exploitation, another America for those of us who’ve been doing the heavy lifting all along,” Lee says in the video narration. “I’m ready to bring the fight I’ve been in my whole life to Washington.”
It’s not clear what the name or boundaries of the district Lee is running in will be by the time of the May primary. If Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature submits a gerrymandered map in the coming months, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is expected to veto it, setting up a battle in the state’s Supreme Court.
Given Pennsylvania’s loss of a House seat, the current 18th District’s boundaries are set to expand to include more residents.
Regardless, most observers believe that the Pittsburgh area is almost certain to have at least one solid Democratic seat in the House. The question becomes whether the newly drawn district would have a greater share of moderate suburbanites or conservative rural residents than the current district.
Lee said she plans to fight for the support of all voters regardless of ideology, but she is concerned about the potential for redistricting to dilute representation for the urban core of Black, Latino and progressive voters.
By her own admission, Lee would be further to the left than Doyle, a self-described “pragmatic progressive” who co-sponsored single-payer health care legislation and became more liberal on social issues over the course of his career.
Perhaps more importantly, the two lawmakers’ divergent styles are evident in the themes they choose to emphasize.
In a press conference announcing his retirement on Monday, Doyle expressed hope that the country could “find a way to heal” from its current divisions, lamenting a culture he called too “tribal.”
Lee, by contrast, is more focused on the moral clarity with which progressives must face their adversaries. “There are still so many Democrats expecting Republicans to snap out of something,” she said.
But based on her experience in Harrisburg, Lee concluded, “I don’t see that as a possibility.”
With her candidacy, Lee joins constitutional law Professor Jerry Dickinson, who entered the race in April. Some other up-and-coming politicians on election watchers’ shortlist for the race include state Rep. Austin Davis (D), Pittsburgh city controller Michael Lamb and Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor.
Doyle said Monday that he timed his announcement in the hopes of leaving time for a “robust” field of candidates to develop.
“If at some point, someone steps forward that I think would really be a good fit for the district and someone that I think would be a good successor, I’ll come forward and support that person,” Doyle said.