Progressive Summer Lee Overcomes Super PAC Avalanche In Pittsburgh House Race

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee speaks earlier this month at a rally in Pittsburgh that was headlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She is set to join the ultraliberal bloc known as the
Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee speaks earlier this month at a rally in Pittsburgh that was headlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She is set to join the ultraliberal bloc known as the

Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee speaks earlier this month at a rally in Pittsburgh that was headlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She is set to join the ultraliberal bloc known as the "Squad." (Photo: Rebecca Droke/Associated Press)

Overcoming a $3 million onslaught from pro-Israel groups, Summer Lee, a progressive state representative, has won the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District.

Lee defeated attorney Steve Irwin, constitutional law professor Jerry Dickinson, nonprofit administrator Jeff Woodard, and businessman Will Parker.

Voting in the primary came to a close on Tuesday, but it took several days to count all of the ballots. Given the narrow nature of Lee’s lead on election night, The Associated Press did not declare a winner until Friday.

As the primary victor in a solidly Democratic seat that includes the city of Pittsburgh, Lee is now virtually assured a seat in Congress after the general election in November.

She would be the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress and the first Black person of any gender to represent Pittsburgh there. A supporter of “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and the redistribution of police funds to other social programs, Lee would also be the newest addition to the ultra-liberal House bloc known as “the Squad.”

“Today, the people took on the corporations and the people won,” Lee said in a statement early Wednesday morning. “We built a movement in Western Pennsylvania that took on corporate power, stood up for working families, and beat back a multimillion dollar smear campaign.”

Lee’s primary win is a disappointment for the pro-Israel establishment, which had rallied behind her chief opponent, Irwin. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s new super PAC, the United Democracy Project, spent nearly $2.7 million on Irwin’s behalf, much of it on TV ads and mail items attacking Lee. AIPAC also bundled more than $268,000 for Irwin in the first quarter of this year, helping him build a direct fundraising advantage over Lee.

Meanwhile, another pro-Israel super PAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, spent over $400,000 trying to elect Irwin. Unlike Lee, he does not advocate for more U.S. pressure on the Israeli government.

“What we’re seeing is the pushback on that — it’s the pushback on how we have been able to expand and include people who have not been included in the political arena,” Lee told HuffPost during an interview at her Swissvale campaign office earlier this month, referring to the heavy spending on her opponent’s behalf.

Irwin also had a strong base of support among moderate labor unions and Democratic elected officials, such as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and retiring Rep. Mike Doyle, whose departure prompted the vacancy that Lee and Irwin were vying to fill. Doyle reacted to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent visit on Lee’s behalf with contempt, telling reporters, “You don’t get anything done being Bernie Sanders or the Squad.”

Irwin’s website says he supports “moving toward a single-payer healthcare system,” and he has argued that his low-key, conciliatory style would secure more tangible victories for Pennsylvania’s 12th than Lee’s approach as an activist-minded lawmaker.

For example, he considers his experience working in the office of then-Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican, a selling point. (Specter became a Democrat years after Irwin worked for him.)

“I feel that I’m a bridge-builder,” Irwin told Jewish Insider in April.

Steve Irwin, left, campaigns with retiring Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), whom Irwin is seeking to succeed. Irwin is also backed by deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups. (Photo: Rebecca Droke/Associated Press)
Steve Irwin, left, campaigns with retiring Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), whom Irwin is seeking to succeed. Irwin is also backed by deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups. (Photo: Rebecca Droke/Associated Press)

Steve Irwin, left, campaigns with retiring Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), whom Irwin is seeking to succeed. Irwin is also backed by deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups. (Photo: Rebecca Droke/Associated Press)

It’s a message that has found a receptive audience with a number of influential local Democrats who have clashed with Lee since she burst onto the scene in 2018. In May of that year, she surprised many election-watchers by ousting an incumbent state lawmaker.

Relations with local powerbrokers did not improve during Lee’s first term in office. Due to her opposition to fracking and advocacy for greater scrutiny of local industries, Lee has made enemies in the local federation of labor unions and the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, both of which declined to endorse her reelection in 2020. She won anyway.

Although groups backing Irwin have highlighted Lee’s criticism of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 primary, Irwin, not Lee, has ties to the GOP and the anti-union big business lobby. He contributed $250 to the 2014 reelection bid of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and ran the employment law practice of a Pittsburgh firm that, as PayDay Report first noted, conducts “union avoidance” work.

Irwin insists he never engaged in his firm’s “union avoidance” work, but in 2015, the firm advertised him as the point person for businesses that want to express “concerns” about a bill that Pittsburgh passed mandating city-wide paid sick leave.

Several moderate labor unions are wary enough of the Democratic Party’s leftward drift ― and the headaches that they believe progressives cause Democrats in less liberal districts ― that they have gotten behind Irwin.

“Steve reached out to our union leadership and talked about things that he would like to do in D.C., and it kind of paralleled what Mike Doyle did for us in D.C.,” said JoJo Burgess, a politically active member of the United Steelworkers District 10, which is backing Irwin.

Pro-Israel groups’ support for Irwin on the airwaves helped close much of Lee’s early lead in the polls. But Lee benefited from $1.7 million in last-minute outside spending conducted by Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, as well as the backing of a number of progressive labor unions and elected officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey (D).

Lee and her allies also argued that she was being unfairly singled out by big-money groups because she is a Black woman. Irwin did not help his case in a March interview in which he said that electing a Black woman “on its face, is very attractive.”

“They want to say that we shouldn’t believe that we have the power to transform and change things in this region, that Black women shouldn’t be represented, that women shouldn’t be in office,” Lee told supporters at a canvass kickoff earlier this month. “They want us to believe that it’s OK that we’ve never had a non-white male congressman, that the qualifications that we have are never going to be good enough for somebody who just gets to exist in their gender and in their race.”

In conversations Tuesday with voters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a historically Black neighborhood, it was apparent that pro-Israel groups’ massive TV ad campaigns aimed at casting doubt on Lee’s Democratic credentials had broken through. But several voters told HuffPost that they ended up voting for Lee anyway.

Gary Howell, a retired truck driver and military veteran, went into his polling place planning to vote for Irwin because TV ads had left him with the impression that Lee was a Republican. He was surprised to find her name on the Democratic primary ballot; a poll worker confirmed to him that she was a Democrat.

“He had like three different commercials slandering her,” Howell said. “I just voted for her because she didn’t say a whole lot of bad things about him.”

Rose Loker, a retired computer programmer, went with “Lee because she has a lot of fight in her. She’s not going to be a person who’s going to give in.”

Loker, who “waffled” between Lee and Irwin based on their qualifications, thought that “dark money” TV ads were lying about Lee’s lack of party loyalty.

“After a while, I kept thinking, ‘Well, why doesn’t she fight back?’” Loker said. “But then I realized she can’t fight back because she doesn’t have the resources to fight back.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.