Patel battles identity politics attacks in 12th District House race
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Election 2024Candidate laments tone of race

Patel battles identity politics attacks in 12th District House race

“It’s almost like it allowed people to be outwardly racist, xenophobic and anti-Asian and hateful towards me,” Patel said.

Bhavini Patel (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)
Bhavini Patel (Photo by Maureen Kelly Busis)

This story has been updated to reflect an email the Chronicle received from the Pittsburgh City Paper.

Bhavini Patel, an Edgewood Borough Council member, entered the race for District 12’s House seat in October, challenging Rep. Summer Lee in the Democratic primary. Since then, she says she has been targeted by some of Lee’s backers, in part because of her support for Israel.

A progressive with blue-collar roots, and a vocal advocate for the Jewish state, Patel has garnered support from many Jews in Pennsylvania’s 12th District who are disappointed with Lee’s voting record and statements regarding Israel.

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on the Jewish state, Patel has released several statements and appeared at many local public events in support of Israel and the hostages held in captivity in Gaza.

The rhetoric and actions against her are amping up, she said, and may have contributed to the decision to cancel her appearance at an event at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It’s quite disheartening,” Patel told the Chronicle the day after the Frederick Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh canceled her speaking engagement. The congressional hopeful is an alum of the school and wasn’t planning to discuss politics.

In a Feb. 7 Facebook post, Patel wrote: “Today, Pitt cancelled my speaking engagement citing concerns of disruption and my safety. I’m a proud graduate of Pitt and celebrate it as an institution where I found the power of my voice.”

Patel said that she was excited when offered the opportunity to speak at a Frederick Honors College alumni engagement event. She planned to discuss being the first person in her family to graduate from college and the associated challenges, the importance of internships and how to build a successful professional career.

Understanding that the university is a 501(c)(3) and that she is a candidate for political office, Patel said the two parties went to great lengths to make sure no lines would be crossed.

“We went back and forth about how that would happen and what questions would be asked by the students and the guidelines within which we would operate,” she said. “Even the way it was advertised was as an alumni speaking engagement.”

Despite the work done to ensure the event remained nonpolitical, Patel said she received an email from the university the day before the event saying it would have to be rescheduled until after the election cycle to avoid potential disturbances.

Once the event was announced on social media, Patel said that some of Lee’s supporters began “blasting the comments section, basically saying, ‘How can you do this, you’re a 501(c)(3).’ I imagine there was additional pressure mounted that led to the last-minute cancellation.”

University of Pittsburgh spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said in an email that the Frederick Honors College regularly invites distinguished alumni to speak to students about their time at Pitt.

“It was in this capacity, not as a political candidate, that the University invited Bhavini Patel to speak,” he said. “As the event drew closer, it became clear that it would not be possible to host the event at the originally planned location and keep the focus of the event on her experience as a Pitt alumna.”

The cancellation at Pitt comes on the heels of a Jan. 28 candidate forum at Carnegie Mellon University that included an audience at turns raucous, confrontational and even at times intimidating, Patel said.

A group of Lee supporters sat in the first three rows of the auditorium, directly in front of Patel.

“The first three rows were filled with people wearing Summer Lee pins and T-shirts,” Patel said. “That’s OK, but the minute they started to scream, clap, stand up every other moment, that’s incredibly disruptive and it feels like an intimidation tactic. The way they were grouped — the eye contact, I’m out in front and they’re right there — it felt inappropriate, and it made it incredibly difficult to engage in the substance of various issues.”

Patel said she has been attacked in the media for her support of Israel and because of her ethnicity.

In a Jan. 30 article in the Pittsburgh City Paper, “Bhavini Patel courts out-of-state donors with Hindu nationalist ties and pro-Israel agendas,” the writer — who said he got a tip that enabled him to attend a video call arranged for Patel supporters — reported that the call was notable for, among other things, “attendees’ vociferous praise of Israel, their interest in defeating progressive Democrats and ‘Squad’ members, including Patel’s opponent, incumbent U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; and Hindu nationalist rhetoric.”

Patel called the article “racist, misinformed and xenophobic.” She said that the paper received push back on the story and that the publication revised it. In a Feb. 16 email to the Chronicle, the City Paper writer said that the article was edited in response to the feedback they received on social media. In a note, the paper wrote:

“In earlier version of this article identified two phrases used during the call as potential Hindu nationalist dog whistles. After receiving substantial public feedback to the contrary, CP has removed these phrases. CP appreciates the callouts and regrets any mischaracterization.”

The article also mentioned that callers were “unanimous in their support of Israel and its war efforts in the Gaza Strip. Patel and others made multiple references to the Tree of Life synagogue massacre and Squirrel Hill’s robust Jewish community.”

Those references, Patel said, made her feel “othered.”

“It’s almost like it allowed people to be outwardly racist, xenophobic and anti-Asian and hateful towards me,” she said.

Members of Lee’s staff reposted the article on social media.

“As a woman of color, as a brown woman, I’ve dealt with racism my entire life,” Patel said, “but I think what’s most shocking to me in all of this is the amount of racism, xenophobia and antisemitism I’ve seen. This is the kind of stuff you would expect to see in a Republican primary not a Democratic primary.”

Patel’s fundraising was called into question in the City Paper article, particularly the number of her out-of-state donors. It made no mention of Lee’s out-of-state donors, which according to the FEC fundraising report for the last quarter of 2023, includes 813 donors from outside of Pennsylvania — a majority of Lee’s contributors.

“Quite frankly, my money is local,” Patel said. “My opponent’s is not. It was reported recently that 60 cents of every dollar my opponent has raised is not from Pennsylvania. Seventy percent of our money comes from the state of Pennsylvania.”

Patel said she had looked forward to a campaign focusing on ideas, and being able to discuss her positions on various platforms and the historic nature of a campaign featuring three women — Center for Victims President and CEO Laurie MacDonald is also running in the Democratic primary for the District 12 seat. She didn’t expect the type of vitriol she is facing.

“The fact that my voice is not being incorporated into that fabric of diversity and is, in fact, being shut down by my opponents’ supporters, that’s not democracy,” Patel said. “That’s Trump-style tactics. That’s extremist. We should be broadening the dialogue not shutting people out. Nobody wants that. It’s so unhealthy.”

Patel noted that a staffer for Lee’s campaign posted a veiled threat on social media last fall, before she announced her candidacy.

In a September 2023 tweet “Kyla in the Burgh,” who identifies herself as “Press Secretary for the badass @RepSummerLee,” wrote: “Poor Bhavini Patel is going to see my name in her sleep when she decides to challenge Summer Lee. Ask Mehmet Oz how that went for him…”

Lee’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests by the Chronicle for comment. PJC

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

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