Congressional hopeful Steve Irwin on health care, CRT and Israel
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Election 2022Third candidate throws hat into 18th District race

Congressional hopeful Steve Irwin on health care, CRT and Israel

The Squirrel Hill lawyer is running to fill the congressional seat of retiring Mike Doyle

Squirrel Hill attorney Steve Irwin has entered the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle in the Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, which covers Pittsburgh and parts of surrounding suburbs.

A partner in the law firm Leech Tishman, Irwin attended Harvard University before studying law at Georgetown University. While there, he began working for Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and met his future wife, a Squirrel Hill native. The two moved to her hometown and Irwin began clerking for Federal Judge Joseph F. Weis, Jr.

“I never left,” the congressional hopeful told the Chronicle in an interview shortly after he announced his candidacy on Nov. 4.

A father of three, Irwin is a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation. He is a former member of Tree of Life Congregation, where he served as a cantorial soloist for a number of years.

Irwin has been a stalwart supporter of the Jewish community and has served on many boards, including the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, and is a past Pittsburgh chair of the Anti-Defamation League. From 2006-2014, he was a commissioner to Pennsylvania’s Department of Banking and Securities under Gov. Edward Rendell.

Irwin spoke with the Chronicle about why he decided to run, the needs in the district and what matters to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

The interview was edited for length and clarity

Before announcing your candidacy, you explored running for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Why did you decide to run for Congress instead?
When I made the decision to enter public service full time, I looked at offices and my experience spoke to a statewide office. I had been the chair of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition; I served in the Rendell administration; I chaired the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for Pennsylvania. I have a lot of relationships throughout the state. The way the governor’s race was shaping up, it seemed like we needed someone from the west. Until Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, people saw it as a steppingstone. I saw it as a destination, not a way station. The option of running for Congress did not exist at that time. Congressman Doyle’s announcement came out of the blue. There’s nothing I want to do more than represent Pittsburgh and our region in Washington, D.C. I think I’m uniquely suited to do that. It was a no-brainer.

How has your experience prepared you for a potential role in Congress?
We’re at a crossroads in this country. We are at a point where our democracy is threatened. Our region has a tremendous opportunity to become a leader as a technology hub, as a leader in health care. But we’re held back by the fact that not everyone has benefited from the advances we’ve made the last 25 years. I understand how we got here, and I know how far we have to go. I’m working on those things every day with my civic and nonprofit work, my charitable work. I’ve developed trust and alliances over the last 40 years that have really positioned me to hit the ground running. I know Washington, D.C., like the back of my hand and have relationships and have worked at every level of government in Pennsylvania.

How do you address the needs of a district that includes communities that are very well off and those that are struggling?
There are fundamental things that we have to focus on. We can’t do everything. We need to reinvest in those communities that helped build this country. It’s the Mckeesports and National Tire. It’s the steel mills of Braddock. It’s the railroad industry of the Mon Valley and the energy industry that really helped to make the country a leader in the industrialized world. In order to do that, we have to make some hard choices. We’re going to have to transition our energy policy, we have to make housing affordable and make sure the rising cost of health care and pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs don’t put people out of work and deny them the care they need as they get older. Housing, the environment, education — these are critical to giving the next generation the tools they need. The resources on our faith communities are really strained. Government has the ability to help facilitate and get us there. Paid family medical leave, a living wage, training for people who are doing home care, letting people age in place, providing nursing care and letting people choose what they want to do in life — we will all benefit if we help this way.

A huge issue in the recent election was critical race theory. What is your opinion on that?
Critical race theory is not taught in our elementary schools and in our secondary schools. We need to be able to read books and be able to think critically, but critical race theory is something else. There is validity there. There is structural and systemic racism in society. We need to eliminate that. Ultimately, the focus has to be education, teaching tolerance, having people understand different people’s backgrounds and where they come from and their beliefs and respect for those beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League is doing incredible programming in schools throughout western Pennsylvania to help students come together and understand how extremism is the enemy of democracy. It’s not critical race theory — it’s extremism which is a major threat to us and our society. As Jews, we know the dangers of extremist thought that leads to extremist action. We have always been a target. If we don’t speak out now for others who are being victimized, who will speak out for us when antisemitism raises its ugly head even higher in the future?

What are some of the issues in the district specific to the Jewish community?
I think the issues that we face in the Jewish community are not unique to the Jewish community. We have a greater affinity for the state of Israel, but I don’t think that’s unique. A strong, democratic, pluralistic state of Israel, where its inhabitants are safe, is good for the world. We need to continue to support Israel’s right to exist. We have to make sure that we have great public education, and we have to find a way to provide that education in a pandemic environment more effectively. We have great challenges for our seniors and providing for them a continuity of care that is sustainable. Social Security is not enough for most people to be able to live in a dignified way. The health care that you get with it is not as comprehensive as it needs to be. I think health care, education, access to transportation, housing, Israel — those are fundamental things.
Other
You’re going to be running against Summer Lee. She has made statements on Twitter that have been understood by some as anti-Zionist and antisemitic. (in a May, 14, 2021 post Lee wrote: “The US has nvr shown leadership in safeguarding human rights of folks its othered But as we fight against injustice here in the mvmnt for Blk ives, we must stand against injustice everywhere. Inhumanities against the Palestinian ppl cannot be tolerated or justified” Other Tweets can be read HERE. ) Her views are also held by some members of Congress. How would you work with those members toward security for Israel and the safety of American Jews?
We can’t ignore them. Israel is not perfect, but Israel is a democracy. The views that some of these people share mirror concerns that people in Israel may have. But Israel has a right to self-determination. I think it’s going to take my reaching out to develop a relationship to understand the way they feel and why they feel that way, to provide facts, to speak out, when necessary. Antisemitism is not acceptable, and threats to Israel’s existence and security and America’s support of Israel is just not acceptable. I will be a staunch supporter of Israel. Look, World War II was not that long ago. The Tree of Life was only three years ago. The number of incidents in this country has only risen over the last eight years, dramatically. We’ve seen it here more clearly than most places, but it continues. I will do everything that I possibly can to make sure that Pittsburgh’s representative in Washington is a leader in preserving our relationship with state of Israel. PJC

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

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