2024 primary yielded some disappointment, some hope for Jewish Pittsburghers
Election reactionLee, Salisbury races tell different stories

2024 primary yielded some disappointment, some hope for Jewish Pittsburghers

“Give your money. Give your time. Give your shoe leather. Talk to friends."

(Photo by David Rullo)
(Photo by David Rullo)

The 2024 primary election was a tale of two tapes.

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee’s victory over challenger Bhavini Patel in the 12th Congressional District Democratic primary was a disappointment to many in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, while state Rep. Abigail Salisbury’s win over Ashley Comans in the 34th District’s Democratic primary offered some level of comfort to those same people.

Despite the heated Lee/Patel race, voter turnout was only about 33% in Allegheny County — the lowest since 2012. Almost 7,500 fewer voters in the district cast a ballot than in 2022.

Lee prevailed 61% to 39 % despite low favorability ratings. A Mellman Group poll of Democrats taken before the primary showed the incumbent with just a +27 net favorability rating, significantly lower than Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman’s +49 rating in the same survey, according to the Jewish Insider.

Lee retained her seat without the endorsement of the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club. Her performance in the 14th Ward —which includes Squirrel Hill, Swisshelm Park, Regent Square, Point Breeze, Park Place, North Point Breeze and Duck Hollow — was down nearly 21% from 2022, and she lost to Patel in that ward.

That result isn’t surprising given Lee’s alliance with the progressive “Squad,” her calls for a cease-fire in Israel’s war against the terrorist organization Hamas, her votes against American support for Israel and against condemning antisemitism and Iran, and the fact that she largely disregarded Pittsburgh’s mainstream Jewish community, failing to attend any vigil or rally in support of Israel and the release of the hostages, refusing to participate in a pre-primary forum organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and ignoring numerous interview requests from the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

The freshman representative courted controversy when she agreed to appear at a CAIR event alongside known antisemitic and homophobic speakers, then canceled her participation after public pressure and bad publicity.

That controversy wasn’t enough for J Street, which bills itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” to pull its endorsement of Lee — which it did for Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York when his rhetoric, the organization’s leaders said, “crossed a line.”

Mark Fichman, a member of J Street Pittsburgh, said the organization was “glad to see JStreetPAC endorsee Congresswoman Summer Lee win her primary election.” He added that J Street is looking forward to working with Lee to secure victories against MAGA and Trumpism in November.

For many on the progressive side of politics, Lee’s win was viewed as a warning to the Biden administration against its support of Israel. Her allies included those who lobbied the Allegheny County Council to pass a cease-fire motion — which was overwhelmingly rejected — and by some taking part in the anti-Israel encampment at Schenley Park, as was evidenced by a yard sign supporting Lee at the site.

The 12th District primary proved somewhat divisive for the local Jewish community. Many moderate Jewish voters, and those who support Israel’s war against Hamas, campaigned for Patel, who attended many Jewish communal events after Oct. 7 and backed the Jewish state’s right to defend itself. A small but active contingent of Jewish community members sided with Lee.

Squirrel Hill resident Lou Weiss said that he was disappointed with the small but not insignificant number of Jews that supported someone that “would cheer those that would destroy him.”

Weiss was frustrated with Lee’s unwillingness to speak with the mainstream Jewish community and said that he’ll be voting for her opponent in the general election, Republican James Hayes.

“He’s a very nice guy,” Weiss said, but acknowledged that Hayes’ odds of victory are long because the district tends to track blue.

“But I wouldn’t vote for Summer Lee if she were the last nominee on the planet Earth,” he said.

Karen Hochberg, the president of the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, believes that the period between the primary and general election offers an opportunity for communication.

“Now is the time, if there are any ill feelings, for both elected officials and community members to talk,” she said.

Hochberg said there’s a need for serious dialogue, effort, respect and trust.

For Democratic activist Susan Berman Kress, Salisbury’s victory proved that people noted the work of the incumbent, who gained her seat after a special election and had only a year in office before the primary.

“I think it showed that her district was really paying attention to the good work she did,” Berman Kress said. “On the other hand, I was disappointed about the outcome of the race between Lee and Patel.”

Berman Kress said that those who are unhappy with Lee’s win should get active in politics.

“Give your money. Give your time. Give your shoe leather. Talk to friends. Make sure people vote and make sure people have a way to vote — and not just the people that are in your closest circles. It has to be conversations with people who don’t all think the same as you already,” she said.

Berman Kress said the date of the primary —the first day of Passover — left many Jewish community members across the state feeling disenfranchised, even if they voted by mail.

“We were the only state, as far as I know, the only state in the country, that didn’t change the primary,” she said.

Like many, Berman Kress is conflicted about the general election. A vote for Lee, she said, is a vote against Jewish communal interests, but a vote against Lee means that the House may end up in Republican control, something that concerns her.

She wants Lee to engage in conversations with a broader segment of the Jewish community.

“I want her to have conversations [with those] that don’t agree with her, that are outside her bubble of people who agree with her positions,” Berman Kress said. “I think that’s a two-way thing. I think the voter base has to get active, but I think the representative also has to actively listen to more than one opinion from the Jewish community.”

Jeremy Kazzaz, the executive director of the Beacon Coalition — a local political education and advocacy nonprofit — viewed the election through a different lens.

“I told anybody who wanted to hear my metrics for success for this election [that] I wanted to see Summer Lee not walk away with a gigantic margin,” he said. “I wanted to see an impact here in the 14th Ward and we want to see Abigail Salisbury win.”

Accomplishing two of those three things, he said, would count as victory.

As a result, he said, “I think that I am happier than maybe most with the outcome of the election.”

Still, Kazzaz said that Lee likely feels emboldened and empowered by her victory, pointing to her use of the word “genocide” regarding Israel since her primary win.

“Something she did everything in her power to avoid using leading up to it,” he said.

Kazzaz noted the low election turnout and the out-of-state money injected into Lee’s campaign.

“She traveled the country and raised money describing the boogeyman of Jewish lobbying groups,” he said, adding that her national organizing extended to bussing in people to canvas for her.

But Kazzaz believes Lee’s ability to motivate voters is limited, based on Salisbury’s victory against Comans, who was endorsed by Lee, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato.

Salisbury, he said, has been and will continue to be a strong advocate in the state House for the Jewish community, of which she is a part.
As for Lee, many aren’t so sure.

“Jesse Helms got turned around years ago,” Weiss said, “so maybe it’s not impossible.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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