By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
A campaign mailpiece from her opponent, Chris Roland, has accused state Rep. Summer Lee of voting to “make it easier for sex offenders to work in schools,” despite the fact that it is 100 percent untrue.
“He has sent other untrue mailers out about me, but this is by far the most egregious,” Lee told the Pittsburgh Current Friday afternoon, the same week she also received an endorsement from Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “I’m really concerned about his ability to read and understand legislation. He either doesn’t understand it or he’s being intentionally misleading. Either way, it’s a problem.
“People know me and they know my record. Does that even sound like me, like a decision I would make? Based on my record and the work I’ve done for the district, I trust the voters to see through this kind of thing.”
Roland sent the mailer last week and based the claim on Lee’s negative vote on House Bill 235, an adoption bill that would allow corrections officers to be witnesses to an incarcerated person surrendering their parental rights of their child. Lee, along with many other Democrats voted no on the measure. The allegation in Roland’s mailer comes from an amendment added later to the bill that adds specific language to state law regarding hiring practices and background checks to prevent sex offenders from working in a school or childcare center.
Lee said the language was required to allow the state to receive federal funding from the federal government. The language had nothing to do with the original bill and could have been handled in separate legislation. But the major fallacy here is that sex offenders are already prohibited by law to work in these facilities. Even if the law would have failed it wouldn’t have made any difference in the current laws.
Lee had major concerns with the main bill because it allows corrections officers to be a witness to an inmate surrendering their parental rights. She says a CO is in a position of power over an inmate and that can have undue influence on the incarcerated person. She says the sex offender language was added as a “poison pill” of sorts. Sometimes these are used to sink legislation but can also be used to force someone to vote yes on a bill they oppose or be faced to deal with a situation like Lee is in now. “Every time a poison pill like this is put in legislation, they expect you to cower” and change your vote, Lee says.
Another main problem with Roland’s mailer is that it doesn’t just reflect on his opponent, it reflects on the other 31 House and Senate Democrats who voted no on the bill. Among those Democrats is Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, Sen. Lindsey Williams, Sen. Pam Iovino, Sen. Wayne Fontana, Rep. Ed Gainey, Rep. Sara Innamorato, Rep. Dan Miller, and Rep. Austin Davis.
“If this isn’t a blatant lie, then is he also saying that Jay Costa supports pedophiles? What about Ed Gainey and Lindsey Williams, do they want pedophiles in schools? He’s not just doing this to me. He’s attacking our Democratic values and our ideology.
“I’m also really disappointed in County Executive Rich Fitzgerald who endorses and financially supports my opponent. Our partners, those who support us, share in the responsibility of how candidates campaign. Do his supporters stand behind these negative and disgraceful campaign tactics?”
Fitzgerald’s county spokesperson directed the Current to Fitzgerald’s campaign. Emails were sent but not returned.
The Current submitted questions to Roland’s campaign in writing Monday morning as they requested. The email contained five detailed questions specifically about the mailer. The response back was a statement that not only avoided the questions but doubled down on the claim that Lee is light on sex offenders. Roland’s campaign manager Darnika Reed offered two other examples of times that Lee made similar negative votes.
Roland’s campaign only directly answered one question about whether or not he was insinuating that the other public officials were also lenient on sex offenders. On that question, the campaign excused every other negative votes in this way:
“We take the other elected officials at their word on the reasoning as to why they opposed their legislation because their records are much different than Summer Lee’s,” according to a statement attributed to Reed. The statement then one on to claim Lee made negative votes on other pieces of legislation, one of them being the “Buyer Beware” law in Pennsylvania that addressed penalties for sex and human trafficking. The campaign claimed it was further truth of Lee’s beliefs. However, while Lee was only one of four to oppose that vote, the others, including Rep. Sara Innamorato and Chris Raab of Philadephia, also voted with her on SB 35, however, Roland’s campaign says the votes only means Lee favors sex offenders.
The statements offered by Roland seem to have made in the same vein as the original mailer, using pointed written statements. While background information was provided on which bills the Roland campaign used to back up their statements, there was no opportunity for the Current to question them on the tactics and they refused to directly answer specific questions. Repeating them here without the opportunity for direct questioning would just further spread the information without the candidate personally defending them.
When contacted for her reaction to the statement, Lee said Roland’s willingness to give other legislators a pass on the vote was an obvious political “dog whistle.”
“There seems to be this feeling of contempt toward me; it feels personal,” Lee said.”There are always legitimate issues that you can and should question a legislator on, especially when it’s a complicated vote. One thing you can be sure of is I do my due diligence before every vote.
“When I was elected, I said I would stand up for marginalized communities. Doing that means I sometimes have to make the hard vote, not the easy one. Some legislators don’t always make the hard vote because at some points in their political careers, things like this are used against them.”
In the case of the trafficking bill, Lee heard from a lot of sex workers who were against the bill and who would be personally harmed by the law. At the end of the day, she says, she supported that community. Lee says sometimes doing the right thing means standing in the minority. Take the vote for last year’s Marsy’s Law bill. The bill was touted as a victim’s rights act, however, many activists and advocates felt that it violated the constitutional rights of others. Lee was only one of four legislators in the house to vote against the measure. Before the law could appear on a ballot, the state Supreme Court ruled the measure was unconstitutional.
Pa. Sen. Lindsey Williams knows something about negative campaigns. In her campaign two years ago she faced a Republican in the general election who went negative at every opportunity. In the end, she was able to win, turning a red seat, blue.
Williams says that the language Roland is using to attack Lee with was an amendment “that had nothing to do with the atrocious bill” that it was added to. Williams disagreed with the bill and she, too, voted no.
Williams says the amendment was merely cleaning up the language of existing state law to meet federal guidelines but “I and 18 other senate Democrats voted not to jeopardize the rights of an individual because the federal government wanted language on a completely different matter. Unfortunately, it happens all of the time and then during an election, you get mailpieces like this taken completely out of context because you wanted to thoughtfully weigh the pluses and minuses of a piece of legislation. That amendment never should have been in this bill. It does a disservice to my constituents.
“Look at my colleagues who voted against this bill. These are champions of children and education.”
The Pittsburgh Current has reached out to other legislators who voted against the bill and will add their comments as they come in.
Williams had seen the mailer when she spoke to the Current on Friday and didn’t mince words about it.
“It’s gross; it was a very dishonest mailer and it made me mad,” Williams said. “To put it more clearly, it’s a lie.
“For him to say that Summer Lee is against children is offensive. And if he’s saying it about her, then he’s saying it about me.”
Unfortunately, says Gerald Shuster, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who specializes in election communications, negative campaigning can work.
“It’s the kind of thing that catches fire,” Shuster says. “You and I both know that unless somebody has a particular interest in a race or a candidate, they don’t read all the available information or even everything in the mailer. A voter sees the words Summer Lee and sex and schools and that’s what they remember, that’s the danger of something like this. And the person who sent that mailer knows that.
“Now the difficult part for Summer Lee is, ‘how do I handle this? Do I ignore it or do I respond?’ It’s a hard decision, but I think you just can’t push it aside.”
And that’s what the sender of negative mailers and ads counts on, Shuster says.
Lee says she hopes Roland is held accountable for his negative campaign tactics.
“We need a party and a media apparatus that digs down and really scrutinizes these kinds of tactics,” says Lee. “My opponent’s mailer is nothing more than an act of self-preservation. And, apparently, we’ve learned he’s willing to sell his soul to try and win.”