The Lead

Braddock official launches primary against progressive Democrat Summer Lee

By: - December 2, 2019 5:22 pm

North Braddock councilman Chris Roland is challenging progressive Democratic Rep. Summer Lee in the 2020 primary. Lee was first elected in 2018. (Via Roland campaign Facebook)

A wave of young, left female candidates have knocked off a half dozen long time incumbents in Pittsburgh since 2016. But one local municipal official is now trying to flip the script on one of the newly elected — and most vocal — progressives.

Chris Roland, a North Braddock councilman and Allegheny County employee, told the Capital-Star last week that he was primarying Democratic Rep. Summer Lee. 

Lee, who was backed by the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and the first Black woman to represent western Pennsylvania in the Legislature, won her first term by beating a moderate Democrat in the 2018 primary.

Lee’s 34th House District seat includes parts of Pittsburgh, and some southeastern suburbs and neighboring boroughs — such as Braddock, Swissvale and Homestead.

Roland argued that he would be a better coalition builder than Lee, and cited two groups that Roland said Lee doesn’t talk with enough — the United Steelworkers and local police.

“When you take such strong stances against the police department, against union labor, there’s no conversation after that,” Roland told the Capital-Star, adding: “You can’t just have one opinion, throw it out there, and that’s it.”

Roland also criticized Lee for voting against the 2019 state budget, which included extra state dollars to the Woodland Hills School District in the 34th.

Lee, as well as other local Democrats, has confronted U.S. Steel over air pollution from the company’s Clairton Coke plant — about 10 miles down the Monongahela River from Lee’s district. 

She also called for the plant to immediately cease production while new pollution controls are added — inciting some anger from local plant workers. Lee’s district itself includes the company’s Edgar Thomson steel mill, in Braddock. 

Lee has also been a vocal ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, after the police shooting of 17-year old Antwon Rose Jr. — who lived  in her district. She’s introduced a bill that would change how police can use force.

Reached by the Capital-Star, Lee said she wasn’t surprised she had a challenger, and welcomed it.

“I think [a primary is] something that every single member, every single person in government, should be worried about if you are truly seeking to represent people,” she said.

Defending her record, Lee pointed to the elevated rates of asthma among kids living near the Braddock steel plant. Even if she’s been an active ally of organized labor, she reserved the right to level critiques.

“You can’t call someone your sister or brother and not hold them accountable,” Lee said.

She also tweeted about the primary Sunday evening.

Roland could have at least one powerful ally — his campaign Facebook includes a picture of him with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at Roland’s campaign kickoff. Fitzgerald did not return a request for comment by press time.

Lee emphatically beat 20-year Democratic incumbent Rep. Paul Costa in the 2018 Democratic primary, taking two thirds of the vote. She went on to win the November general election unopposed.

Her victory, as well as one by fellow progressive Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, has laid a blueprint for a number of progressive challenges in Pittsburgh for local and state office since.

*This story was updated to reflect that Roland referred to Woodland Hills School District

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.