By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
On Sunday, February 2, at the Pittsburgh Firefighters Hall in Hazelwood, the Young Democrats of Allegheny County held their Candidate Recommendation Forum (its second ever). A couple dozen candidates running for Congress, State Senate and State Representative in SWPA had two minutes to make their case before answering questions from the membership. It was especially exciting to hear from folks in contested primaries.
Despite the Democratic electorate becoming increasingly progressive in Allegheny County, there is a hefty part of the old guard that has been resistant to progressive candidates. State Reps Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, and more recently County Councilors Bethany Hallam and Liv Bennett, were not supported by the Democratic establishment, even when the incumbents they challenged could have been mistaken for Republicans, and hadn’t really done much for their constituents. The refrain spoken again and again was “we must protect our incumbents.” This felt really lazy. After all, it inherently props up the status quo, mostly old white men. But hey! There was consistency.
But, apparently, not for at least one incumbent. I was really curious to hear from North Braddock Borough Councilor Chris Roland, who is challenging Summer Lee in House District 34. In 2018, Lee defeated Paul Costa, a 20-year incumbent, in a landslide in the Democratic primary. She also increased voter turnout in her district by 54% by bringing folks into the fold who weren’t engaged before. Lee ran on an unapologetic platform for economic, racial, and environmental justice, and caught nationwide attention while doing it.
Pittsburgh has consistently been lauded as the “most livable city,” while a study came out this year saying that the best chance a black woman has to improve her health is to move away. Lee speaks to issues from an intersectional, multidimensional framework in large part because of her identity.
At the forum she said, “The perspective I bring to Harrisburg is an important one; to be a poor black woman who is also a Democratic Socialist, to have that perspective is really meaningful.” Representation matters. Lived experience matters. In terms of legislative action, she’s currently leading the charge, along with Rep. Ed Gainey, around police officers and the use of deadly force. In working on a Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill, she went to three different prisons to center the impacted group and hear from them what they need.
I read what I could find about Roland’s campaign, and I was turned off by some of his reasons for running. “Roland said he’d take a less confrontational approach on some hot-button issues than Lee has” is like dog whistling that an assertive black woman is combative by virtue of using her voice. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he posted a photo with the words: “Today we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and so many others who fought to include all in the American Dream. We have made great progress but there is still much work to do.” Pretty brazen for someone trying to oust the loudest voice for civil rights in our legislature, right?
So after Roland’s speech, the time came for questions, and my hand shot up. To see this exchange for yourself, go to this link at the 31 minute mark.
“You talked on your social media about making progress in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, that we’ve fought for things but need to continue to move forward. You’re now trying to erase one of the strongest voices for civil rights in our legislature in Summer Lee — how do you square with that?”
Roland responded: “We have a large sports complex there that kids play little league and other sports… I cut all the grass there. I do all the maintenance there, I work for those kids…” He continued on about working with kids to get internships and job training, and sitting on an economic development board.
Now that all may be relevant to … something, but it wasn’t remotely a response to what I asked. In both his speech and response to my question he was soft spoken. He didn’t appear to be sure of why he was there or why he was running at all. Overall, he seemed in over his head.
Witnessing this made me even more perplexed to see photos of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at Roland’s campaign kickoff; it’s actually the background of his website’s homepage. The night before the Forum, Executive Fitzgerald shared a photo with Roland from the Allegheny County Boroughs Association.
This support is interesting, coming from a “protect-our-incumbents” person. In the beginning of the campaign, at least, Fitzgerald hadn’t officially endorsed Roland, even though those photos spoke volumes. But on Friday, Feb. 7, Roland listed Fitzgerald amongst his endorsements in his Stonewall Dems questionnaire.
When the incumbent is a black woman, and you’re backing a white man, it really is a bad look. I’d wager that folks in power are intimidated by Summer Lee, and that is why folks who traditionally held protecting incumbents as sacrosanct are willing to prop up someone else. Summer is, like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was, unbought and unbossed. Despite tremendous pressure, she’s held to her values and hasn’t stepped back from taking votes others might be afraid to.
Just this week, a bill passed the PA state house and senate that would allocate billions in subsidies to future petrochemical facilities. Apparently socialism is bad, unless it’s for frackers? Despite environmental advocates decrying the bill, only 5 out of 28 legislations in Allegheny County voted no, including Senator Lindsey Williams, Senator Jay Costa, Representatives Sara Innamorato, Dan Frankel, and of course, Summer Lee.
Incumbents should be primaried. Challenged. Pushed. Regularly. Part of why we have so many conservative Democrats in SWPA is because of this obsession with loyalty towards incumbents. That loyalty and lack of challenge breeds complacency and entitlement. We need our elected officials to always be working to be better, to represent us; not just as mirrors, but as leaders of action on the issues we care about and for folks who haven’t had a voice in our political system. Democratic primaries should be a contest to move things forward, not backwards.
As Summer said at the forum, “It’s important that we talk about how to galvanize and organize communities, because at the end of the day, if your legislator is advocating for bills and saying all these grand things, but we’re not able to get people in our communities excited, or help them and empower them and enfranchise them that they’re being included in the legislative process the whole way, then we’re not able to get there.”