I was introduced to Summer Lee last year by a mutual friend. We met for drinks in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, and she shared her background (Howard University Law grad who recently moved back to the Pittsburgh area), the work she was currently doing to oust racist members of the Woodland Hills School Board (she graduated from Woodland Hills High School in 2005) and her political aspirations. “Impressive” doesn’t quite feel like a strong-enough word to describe her, but for now it will do.
A couple of months later, I attended her launch party. And then, in March of this year, I co-hosted a fundraiser for her. The pic below was taken during that event.
I’m sharing this information to answer any doubts about my objectivity, considering that she’s a politician and I am writing a thing about her; to make it clear, I have none. But even if we didn’t have a relationship, after learning about her, I’d be just as impressed.
Lee’s success against the school board drew the attention of Daniel Moraff, a member of the D.S.A.’s steering committee. He approached Lee and asked if she’d be willing to run for office. When she said no, he asked her to think about it. Lee concluded that it was no longer enough for black women like her to vote. “We already do,” she said. In Alabama, the Democrat Doug Jones beat the Republican Roy Moore in a special Senate election in December; it was the first Democratic victory in the state in a quarter century and was largely attributed to the votes of black women. “We’re not going to wait for someone to stand up for us,” she said. “We need to run.”
Local Democrats, including Costa, have focussed on bringing businesses to Braddock, many of which train and employ locals. Among them, Costa told me, was a microbrewery opened by two students at Carnegie Mellon, and Superior Motors, which Food & Wine voted one of the best restaurants of 2018. But Lee sees such “revitalization” as a form of gentrification, a term she uses to describe “the forces of late capitalism” that lead to cycles of poverty and displacement. Last year, establishment Democrats energetically backed the initiative to pitch Pittsburgh as a home for Amazon’s new headquarters. Lee was disgusted. Pittsburgh’s roads and bridges were already in dismal condition: How would they handle thousands of new trucks? What kind of taxes would Amazon pay while driving up rents? “The tech boom has made city officials proud,” she said, but, for the city’s African-Americans, the benefits were scarce. In 2015, the median income of black households was $26,330, less than half of the white median income of $57,187.
Also among the causes she champions: universal free prekindergarten; the elimination of cash bail; an opposition to the reinstatement of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws; a universal, single-payer health care system; a $15 minimum wage; a moratorium on fracking; full state funding of lead-water-line replacement; and an unflinching defense of access to reproductive health.
Last night, she defeated longtime incumbent Paul Costa and is now the state representative for Pennsylvania’s 34th District (32-year-old Sara Innamorato, who’s also a friend, defeated Costa’s cousin Dom last night for the 21st District’s House seat with a similarly progressive platform).
It’s too early to predict how Lee will fare once her job begins and how successful she’ll be in Harrisburg, Pa. Still, when thinking about her and her politics, I can’t help also thinking about the foolishness and danger of the idea, pushed by people like Candace Owens, that our overreliance on the Democratic Party means that “free-thinking” black people should consider aligning themselves with the right. Which today means an alignment with white supremacy.
There’s nothing free or new or radical about that. It’s just another way of adhering to the status quo, which is something Summer Lee has no interest in doing.