District 12 candidates spar over Israel, campaign finance at CMU forum
2024 ElectionDemocratic primary is April 23

District 12 candidates spar over Israel, campaign finance at CMU forum

Summer Lee, Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald face off during community forum

From left: Summer Lee, Laurie MacDonald and Bhavini Patel at the Barbara Daly Dank Political Forum at Carnegie Mellon University on Jan. 28 (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)
From left: Summer Lee, Laurie MacDonald and Bhavini Patel at the Barbara Daly Dank Political Forum at Carnegie Mellon University on Jan. 28 (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)

During a political forum that was frequently interrupted by cheers from the candidates’ supporters, or jeers from their hecklers, the three Democratic challengers for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district faced off at Carnegie Mellon University on Sunday.

Incumbent Rep. Summer Lee, Edgewood Borough Councilwoman Bhavini Patel and Center for Victims President and CEO Laurie MacDonald did not debate, but instead responded to a series of questions read by moderators Heidi Norman, an Allegheny County Democratic Committee member; Chris Potter, government and accountability editor of WESA; and Avalon Sueiro, a CMU sophomore and president of CMU College Democrats.

More than 300 people — including scores of students, Jewish community members and people donning black-and-white keffiyeh head scarfs, an emblem of solidarity with the Palestinian cause — packed the McConomy Auditorium at the Jared L. Cohon University Center.

The candidates were questioned on abortion, climate change, gun control and transgender rights, topics on which they largely agreed.

Topics where they most differed were Middle East policy and the impact of the Israel-Hamas war on District 12’s constituents.

Patel minced no words in stressing the importance of “being a representative for everybody and showing up for your community,” something she said Lee has not done.

Patel has attended several local events supporting Israel since Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of the Jewish state.

Bhavini Patel (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)
“On Oct. 8, the next day, me and my team, we were at the JCC for a rally, being present with our community, trying to be a shoulder to lean on,” Patel said. “Within a week-and-a-half, [Pittsburgh’s Jewish] Federation also had an event. We were there. It was a rally. You know who wasn’t present? The representative [Lee].”

Patel also called out Lee for “tweeting misinformation” about the Israel-Hamas war, including retweeting an article from Al Jazeera wrongly claiming that Israel had bombed a hospital in Gaza.

“The president, within an hour, reported that the IDF was not responsible for bombing that hospital … and it was proved that that was false,” Patel said. “The current representative kept that tweet up for roughly two-and-a-half to three weeks, until she was finally asked on multiple occasions by members of this community, our historic Jewish population, to take the tweet down.

“To me, that is stoking hatred, that is stoking antisemitism,” Patel continued. “And it puts people in our communities in a tragic, dangerous position. That is unacceptable.”

Lee — who began calling for a cease-fire soon after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel and was one of only nine House Democrats to vote against a bipartisan resolution condemning the Hamas attack — responded by saying that the topic of the war between Hamas and Israel “elicits deep pain in multiple communities.”

“The reality is that peace — a just and lasting peace — has to start with centering all of the folks who are impacted,” she said.

Summer Lee (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)
Lee said she’s spent time “talking to a wide swath of each community,” and that she “wasn’t at every event because I have a job in Washington, D.C.” (Later during the forum, though, in a response to a question about supporting unions, Lee emphasized that she has shown up for “every single strike that we’ve had since I’ve been in office.”)

Lee also claimed that she had met with “every Jewish organization” that had requested a meeting with her. Several audience members reacted loudly, contesting that claim.

Since Lee took office in January 2023, the Chronicle has requested to meet with her 11 times. All of those requests were either ignored or denied.

MacDonald, who said her father was from the Middle East, weighed in on the Israel-Hamas war by saying while “it’s not easy to put together a coalition of peacemakers in the Middle East, it’s something I’m very passionate about. I want to do it to honor my father and to honor all the people who have been massacred, who have been raped and destroyed by this terrible terrorist over there.”

Laurie MacDonald (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)
“I think if we work together and continue with the Abraham Accords, and get that process going, then we can find room for everyone in this world,” MacDonald said.

In a question about U.S. foreign policy, Patel called out Lee for voting against sanctioning countries that provide weapons to Iran. Iran, she said, in turn “provides weapons to terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Patel, who has a master’s in international relations, also criticized Lee for tweeting that President Biden did not have the authority to authorize airstrikes in the Red Sea against the Houthis when, “in fact, he actually does have the authority to do that.”

“When we’re unable to actually take these foreign policy concerns in a serious way, and engage with them in an intellectual way, when we’re just focused on posting rather than understanding the challenges, I think it sets us up for challenges,” Patel said.

Responding, Lee referenced her law degree and said that “no, the president does not have the authority to declare a war or offensive strike prior to authorization of Congress.”

While Biden has been criticized by some members of Congress for the strikes on Yemen, experts say that provisions of U.S. law — including the Constitution’s Article 2 — give the president the authority to launch “limited foreign military action,” according to a Reuters analysis. Other presidents have launched limited defensive military actions without the approval of Congress, including in 2011, when then-President Barack Obama authorized air strikes on Libya without congressional approval.

Patel criticized Lee for voting against creating the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which is intended to build consensus on threats “posed by the Chinese Communist Party and to develop a plan of action to defend the American people, our economy, and our values,” according to house.gov.

“Your vote matters,” Patel said. “How you vote has direct consequences for the stability of our own country. The rhetoric is not enough. You can talk one thing and say one thing, but it is the vote that actually counts when you’re trying to serve in D.C.”

Lee responded by saying that the bill was a Republican “attempt to malign the Chinese government and the Chinese people, as we are talking about seeing a rising tide of anti-Asian hate.”

In contrast, despite a rising tide of anti-Jewish hate, Lee voted against a resolution condemning the Hamas Oct. 7 attack and is a vocal critic of the Jewish state on social media.

There have been a total of 3,283 antisemitic incidents in the United States between Oct. 7 and Jan. 7, according to the Anti-Defamation League, marking a 361% increase in reported antisemitic incidents when compared to the same period the previous year.

Patel and Lee sparred again toward the end of the forum when the candidates were asked what law they would most like to see passed. Lee said she would most like to see Citizens United overturned.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a 2010 Supreme Court decision enabling corporations and other outside groups to contribute unlimited funds to politicians’ campaigns.

Lee is anticipating that the United Democracy Project — a super PAC — will spend heavily against her and in support of Patel this election cycle. UDP spent nearly $4 million in ads trying to defeat Lee during the last election. She has accused AIPAC — which she has conflated with UDP — of trying to unseat her because she is a woman of color and to quash the voices of the underserved.

Seemingly taking a jab at Patel, Lee said it was detrimental to the creation of a “reflective democracy” of “Black and brown and young and working-class people,” if “people can court a $100 million super PAC to come in and say, ‘help me, save me so that I can be the champion.’”

Patel, whose family immigrated from India, responded by saying, “It’s interesting. You know, I’m standing here in front of you as a woman of color. I was first in my family to graduate college. I grew up working in my family’s food truck. … And so, this idea that it’s just certain types of people that suffer, or that it’s not a big picture, is actually incorrect.”

Patel noted that roughly 70% of the funding for her campaign has come from within Pennsylvania, and most of those donations were $250 or less.

“So we’re very proud of the broad coalition that we’ve built here and we’re going to continue to run an honest campaign and continue to crisscross the district, show up as principled progressive Democrats who want to get the job done,” she said.

Throughout the forum, MacDonald emphasized her two-decade career working with victims of violent crime and marginalized communities. Some members of the audience loudly heckled her, though, when, in response to a question about bills targeting gender-affirming care, she said that the people who live in District 12 “have no families’ and “live in squalor.”

“That’s not fair,” MacDonald said. “I work there. I help those families. I don’t need to take that. … I love everybody. And I love all of you, too, even if we disagree.”

The Pennsylvania primary election will be held April 23, the first day of Passover. You can apply for a mail-in ballot here. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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