Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee did not wait for the official word before declaring victory in the 12th Congressional District Democratic primary. Speaking to supporters a little after midnight, Lee focused her remarks on the power of Black women as leaders and coalition builders. For Lee to declare victory, her team must be confident that outstanding ballots in Allegheny County will put her over the top.
“They can’t say Black women can’t win,” Lee shouted to the crowd. “When we come together, we can’t be stopped.”
Building a People-Powered Coalition
While her major opponent and his supporters have at times tried to paint Lee as a divisive figure, she built a coalition with support from local and state elected officials that fought back against multimillion-dollar expenditures against her. Irwin is also backed by retiring Rep. Mike Doyle.
“We built a movement in Western Pennsylvania that took on corporate power, stood up for working families, and beat back a multimillion-dollar smear campaign,” Lee said in an emailed statement. “This was never about one candidate – it was about the people of this district who have been left behind by corporations who put their profits over our lives.”
Lee earned support from a wide range of national organizations. From Emily’s List, J Street and Higher Heights for America PAC to Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party. She also had the support of several of her colleagues from the statehouse and local electeds around the state.
She has the same tenacity and grit are present as when we first met four years ago. Before taking on the machine in the 12th Congressional District, Lee fought a fierce race to unseat an incumbent to represent her community in the state legislature.
Over the years, we remained in touch. Occasionally we would chat about what it meant to scale up the success of Lee’s 2018 campaign. In many ways, the coalition Lee built helped elect Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor, Ed Gainey. During her congressional campaign, Gainey has been one of Lee’s most vocal supporters.
Representation Plus Strong Value Alignment Won in the 12th Congressional District
Also, as amazing as it is to celebrate historic firsts, Lee will be the first to say that representation is only part of the conversation. The values she represents and the coalitions she has co-built with her community provide a model of organizing for those looking to shift the balance of power.
But as a Black woman who refused to back down from a white-led power establishment, Lee cannot escape the example she set for many. In some ways, her fierceness is reminiscent of the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Fifty years after Chisholm refused to back down from the Democratic establishment, Black women candidates are still fighting to be seen as worthy.
Black women should not have to control themselves into a particular framework of acceptability to gain electoral support. Lee’s presumptive win in the 12th Congressional District primary is a win for the people. It’s a win for those on the ground who have been there since she first stepped up to run.
Above all, she built her own political machine, powered by everyday working people. Many candidates use that rhetoric, but Lee put it into practice.
One major takeaway from Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District Democratic primary is that Black women are worthy of support. We are leaders and coalition builders and should be respected as such.