A Q+A with state Rep. Summer Lee: ‘I’ve learned that there’s a different way to do politics’
After shaking up Harrisburg, the Pittsburgh Democrat has her sights set on Congress in the May 17 primary
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District (Photo by Nate Smallwood).
By Harrison Cann
State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, is looking to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th District, – and to become the first Black woman from Pennsylvania elected to Congress in the process. Lee faces a handful of Democrats in the newly drawn 12th Congressional District but is confident her progressive résumé and people-driven campaign will garner enough support to win the primary.
With the May 17 primary election approaching, City & State spoke with Lee on the growing progressive movement out west, Doyle’s legacy, and what she can bring to the table.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Q: You had a lot of experience in organizing and activism, but what was the catalyst that made you want to run for public office?
Lee: We just came off of organizing around our school system. We had a whole bunch of things really going badly and a lot of parents and students and family members who just felt like we didn’t have any power to make changes to that. We did a campaign, however, and I think that really turned the tide. It showed our community that if we come up with a plan, we find our own people, and we run them, then we can actually start to change the trajectory of things. We saw that success with the school board but I think it was incredibly empowering. And then, we were trying to figure out: What can we do next? How can we find more folks, particularly, Black folks to run for office? That was when the opportunity presented itself to me. I just thought it would be a good opportunity to elevate some of my lived experiences and the lived experiences of my neighbors and my family members in my community.
Q: You’re trying to make the jump from state representative to U.S. representative. What have you learned from your time in Harrisburg and your previous campaigns that’s guiding you on your congressional run?
Lee: I’ve learned that there’s a different way to do politics. I learned up close and personal that we don’t have to accept that this is just the way that things go and this is just the way that people move in the political space. We are going to have to really do some introspection about the complicity – how our political system has shaped – where it’s gotten to, and the ways in which we have kind of contributed to the lack of productivity. Just in the state legislature, we have one of the least productive legislatures in the country.
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Q: What does it mean to you to be one of the faces of the progressive movement in western Pennsylvania and to get endorsements from national names like Bernie Sanders?
Lee: It’s an honor and it’s definitely a huge responsibility … When we see a Bernie Sanders or an Ayanna Pressley or Justice Democrats who are throwing down with us in this race, I think it’s because they recognize how powerful of a thing we’re building here. They see our area has been leading on this in so many ways that we’ve been creating a blueprint. I think that invigorates us and really encourages us and creates momentum in our region.
Q: Can you speak on U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle’s legacy in Congress and what kind of mindset you would bring to the table if elected?
Lee: Congressman Doyle is somebody who has served for 26 years. He’s a very well-known figure and in many parts of the region, he is very present. He isn’t like a lot of Congress folks who have more of a national presence than a local one. He was here. He was at the picnics and the events and I think people in Western Pennsylvania truly resonate with that. And we’ve seen him move. We’ve seen a lot of officials that last long, we see where they kind of start to get left by their district. Where they started 20 or 30 years ago is not where the district is, and they’ve not been able to reflect that. Congressman Doyle has been able to do that and keep that pulse on where his district is going.
I’ll offer a different perspective, too. I’m a Black woman from the Mon Valley. I grew up in a diverse, working-class community with a single mom. I’ve worked minimum wage jobs and have taken on hundreds of thousands of dollars of loan debt to get an education that was supposed to be that ticket out. These are conditions that we’ve lived in generationally, as someone who has lived without health insurance and as someone who has grown up in a community that has some of the worst air quality in the nation. That perspective and that experience are just going to be different and it informs the way that I do my politics.
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Q: What are your thoughts on Democratic candidate Steve Irwin’s campaign admitting it submitted forged petition signatures and why didn’t you call on him to drop out of the race?
Lee: It’s not about calling for someone to drop out so much as it’s calling for accountability. I think that as politicians, as people in politics, we will make mistakes … But I think the mark of a good politician is not in not making mistakes but in how we own up to it. How do we implement accountability mechanisms when we’re dealing with this? It was really discouraging that (Irwin) himself didn’t speak up. There was no ownership over how this could happen and there was no apology to the hundreds of people whose names were forged for him to be able to get on the ballot. That was disappointing and discouraging because as a candidate in the campaign that really brags about how wealthy he is, how ready his campaign is and how he’s the only one who’s day-one ready, he wasn’t able to get on the ballot without having to resort to these sort of tactics.
Harrison Cann is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared.
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