In a highly contested race in the commonwealth’s newly created 12th Congressional District Democratic Primary, Pennsylvania State Rep. Summer Lee narrowly defeated attorney Steve Irwin.
The Associated Press declared Lee the winner on May 20, three days after polls closed. Lee garnered slightly more than 700 more votes than Irwin, less than a 1% margin of victory.
University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson received just 10.8% of the votes; nonprofit head Jeff Woodard got 4.8%; and entrepreneur William Parker got 1.5%, according to the Department of State tallies.
While it took the AP three days to crown a victor, Lee nonetheless claimed victory on election night. In a statement released late Tuesday, she said:
“This was never about one candidate — it was about the people of this district who have been left behind by corporations who put their profits over our lives. Today is a new way forward for everyone in the Commonwealth with no one left behind.”
Irwin conceded the race Friday in a Tweet.
“I want to congratulate Summer Lee for winning the Democratic nomination for Congress in PA-12,” he wrote. “She ran a formidable campaign, one that reflected her determination to make progress for people and give a voice to the voiceless. She will be an outstanding member of Congress and an inspirational leader for our region.”
By winning the primary in the solidly blue district, Lee is presumed to become the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.
Along with the historic nature of her victory, Lee’s win has shined a light on ideological differences among the district’s Jewish community, which includes Squirrel Hill.
Charles Saul (a member of the Chronicle’s Board of Trustees) was concerned about some of the views Lee expressed before the election. He went so far as to urge Republicans in the district to switch parties so they could vote against her in the primary.
“I was worried about her and who she’s endorsed by,” Saul said. “She’s endorsed by some people I believe are antisemites, like Rashida Tlaib. Another thing that worried me was her equating the suffering of the Gazans and Palestinians to the suffering of African Americans. That’s one of these intersectional things. If that’s her take on the Middle East, that’s very dangerous.”
Lou Weiss echoed Saul’s concern about Lee’s potential alignment in Congress with Tlaib and others on the far left.
“The fact that I’m going to be represented probably by a Squad member is a little bit mind-blowing,” Weiss said. “If she votes based on her philosophy, people will realize and take action and vote against her.”
Saul, too, is keeping his mind open, hoping that Lee will educate herself about the Jewish community and U.S.– Israel relations. But he is concerned about where she is getting her information on the issues.
“She said she would want to be a learning partner with the Jewish community, and that was encouraging,” Saul noted. “Except, if the learning partners are far left-wing individuals, I’m concerned.”
Julie Paris supported Irwin in the primary, saying he was a progressive, pro-Israel Democrat who was familiar with Washington, D.C., had nurtured important relationships and could reach across the aisle to get things done.
She said Irwin’s support of Israel was a significant factor in her backing of the candidate.
“I view the U.S–Israel relationship as extremely significant and important for the future of world Jewry and U.S. security,” Paris said. “That’s why I invested so much of my time in Steve Irwin, believing he could best represent us in PA-12 and really accomplish a lot for both the U.S. and the Israeli relationship.”
Paris is also concerned with the rise of antisemitism — something she sees on social media from both the far right and far left.
“Hatred of Israel actually affects American Jews,” she said. “I feel less safe when Israel is demonized and delegitimized because I know it doesn’t end on the internet, it doesn’t end in the halls of Congress. It spills out into the streets, and we are not immune from the effects of antisemitism in Squirrel Hill.”
Taking a view from the other side of the political fence, Sara Stock Mayo said she was pleased with Lee’s victory.
“I feel like she has a very powerful and necessary voice in the political arena right now when it comes to more progressive issues,” Mayo said.
Mayo said it was Lee’s concern about climate change, gun violence and racial justice that helped garner her support.
And Mayo believes Lee will be a buoy for Democrats in Congress.
“I don’t think, in general, that Democrats have fought back hard enough, and I think Summer is the kind of person who will take people to task,” Mayo said.
As to Lee’s views on Israel, Mayo said she thinks the candidate is working hard to educate herself.
“My family has been in conversation with her about Israel,” Mayo said. “She has spoken with family members of mine in Israel. She has said she would be willing to visit the region. She was always going to fall on the side of ‘the occupation is wrong’ — and I believe that as well.”
Mayo said both she and Lee believe funding to Israel should be conditional.
Lee is open to dialogue, Mayo said, willing to admit what she doesn’t know, and willing to take a nuanced position.
Avigail Oren said her support of Lee grew over the last several years as she heard Lee speak at various marches, gatherings and events.
“I felt that her emphasis on economic justice and racial justice really reflected my own political priorities,” Oren said. “I heard from her constituents that she showed up for them and I really liked that.”
Oren said she isn’t concerned about Lee’s potential alignment with the “Squad” in Congress.
“I am a millennial woman,” Oren said. “I take great pride in seeing other millennial women voicing their vision for a future that includes everyone. I believe there is a place in our political system for dissent. While their position may appear to dissent from the majority of the Democratic Party and platform, they are at the front of a change that is coming as the electorate changes.”
One point of concern for Mayo was the involvement of AIPAC in the election. Last year, the pro-Israel advocacy group launched the United Democracy Project, a so-called “super PAC” which funded ads in several Congressional races, including District 12’s.
“We have to remember who the real enemy is here,” Mayo said. “AIPAC is willing to support over 100 lawmakers who refused to certify Biden’s election and they’re calling themselves ‘interested in democracy’ that is the most anti-democratic thing any of us can do right now. It is a gross misuse of their spending and also attacking a Black woman in the media in such a horrendous way.”
Lee often criticized AIPAC’s opposition to her campaign, and that of the Democratic Majority for Israel, another advocacy group that supports Israel.
But Lee also had support that came from beyond Pittsburgh.
According to media reports, Lee received $1.7 million in spending conducted by Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC. She also had endorsements from Sen Bernie Sanders and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley, as well as the Jewish progressive group Bend the Arc. J Street PAC also backed Lee, accepting donations for her campaign on its website.
Weiss said the criticism against AIPAC in this election cycle was misplaced, noting that J Street, and other organizations like Justice Democrats, have endorsed and funded candidates as well.
“The national support that Steve got put AIPAC’s detractors on notice that there’s someone on the other side that’s going to fight back,” he said.
Despite the results of the race, Paris said she respected the work of Irwin’s campaign.
“He ran with integrity, honesty and a sense of wanting to do what is right for PA 12 constituents,” she said.
That desire to be a part of something positive for the district, is shared by both sides.
“Lee built a movement,” Oren said. “People showed up weekend after weekend. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Lee will face Republican Mike Doyle for the seat recently vacated by retiring Democrat Mike Doyle (no relation to the Republican). PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.