Originally published by The 19th

UPDATE: DecisionDesk HQ projected Tuesday that Summer Lee won the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pennsylvania — Rep. Summer Lee stood in the backyard of a recently built dream home in exurban Pittsburgh and peered at a rusted pipe coming out of the ground topped by an empty, upside down bucket.

It was an orphaned well, probably for natural gas — Murrysville is a hotbed of them and they date to the late 1800s. The state has identified about 27,000 that need capping, but the total number of abandoned oil and gas wells across Pennsylvania could be as high as 350,000. These wells can leak climate-warming methane into the air and leach carcinogens into the water. Their presence can decrease property values. Their effects are disproportionately felt by low-income and communities of color due to historically discriminatory housing policies. They can cost $100,000 or more to cap.

Lee ended up in the backyard with Pamela Schrank because when the homeowner noticed an unpleasant odor emanating from a spot fewer than 200 feet from her house, Schrank called her municipality, which connected her to local and state inspectors and remediation programs, which led to Lee’s office. In December, Lee announced that more than $44 million in federal funds was set to remediate abandoned well sites and cut methane emissions in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. The well should be capped sometime this summer, at no expense to the homeowners.

The brisk day in late March was a traditional district work period for a first-term congresswoman. Lee delivered a $500,000 Publishers Clearing House-style oversized check to rebuild a bridge in North Irwin and visited local businesses in nearby Irwin, dining at the family-owned Colonial Grille and touring the restored Great Depression-era Lamp Theatre, now a live music venue.

But Lee, 36, is in a different position during her primary than the average first-term lawmaker in the House of Representatives. She also has a national profile by virtue of her membership in the “Squad,” a progressive group of mostly women of color that formed in 2018 with the elections of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. They have used their social media savvy to reach millennial and Gen Z voters and nudge their party to the left on policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a higher federal minimum wage and free college tuition. On progressive priorities, the Squad sometimes plays the role of intraparty antagonist to Democratic leaders, most recently due to the group’s calls for a ceasefire in Gaza during the early days of the Israel-Hamas war.

Rep. Summer Lee speaks as Sen. Ed Markey and other participants listen during a news conference on the “Green New Deal.”
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee speaks as Sen. Ed Markey and other participants listen during a news conference on the “Green New Deal” in front of the U.S. Capitol in April 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Squad members are now among top targets of a campaign by a pro-Israel group that could spend as much as $100 million trying to unseat Democrats they determine to be too aligned with Palestine. While support for Israel became a differentiator between Lee and her primary opponent, Bhavini Patel, the pro-Israel lobby ultimately stayed out of the primary. Another super PAC supporting moderate Democrats largely financed by a Republican billionaire, however, has dropped sizable sums to support Patel, who has also tried to make the case that Lee is more interested in burnishing her national profile by undermining President Joe Biden than delivering for their district.

Lee, meanwhile, spent the district work period meeting with labor and business groups, and touting Biden’s infrastructure law. The only time the Israel-Hamas war came up as she visited Murrysville, Irwin and North Irwin was when supporters asked how they could help defend her on the issue. During a recent White House trip to Pittsburgh, Lee was among those whom Biden thanked for having “had his back.” Their trips showed a notable dichotomy between how Lee’s opponents are framing her role in the Democratic Party and her focus on selling the president’s signature legislative achievement.

“A lot of people talk about what’s national because they're trying to malign people who get attention, but the reality is, I think western Pennsylvania is a microcosm of our country, all the issues that we talked about at the national stage play out right here in every single locality we have,” Lee told The 19th in a wide-ranging interview about her reelection bid, her belief that bold progressive policies are broadly popular with Democrats of all stripes and why the party needs to rethink how it defines “swing voters.” “We’re having a very local conversation at the same time that we’re having a very national conversation. It is the same conversation and it is everywhere we go.”

When Lee decided to run for federal office after four years in Pennsylvania’s state House, she knew that she would need to overcome resistance from local and state party leaders who had often prioritized supporting establishment candidates who were historically mostly men and largely White. The state has never elected a woman governor. Only a dozen women have ever represented Pennsylvania in the House, and five of them are serving right now. Lee is the first Black woman Pennsylvania has sent to Congress. But she also knew that when she got to Washington, the Squad would be waiting for her.

Being a member of the high-profile Squad “makes you both a target and [is] a fortification, if any one person had to go it alone, it’s so much easier to pick off a person,” Lee said.

“Courage is absolutely a daily choice. One doesn’t just wake up with some special stuff to do hard things. You wake up and you make that choice … Then we have to hone language to explain it, then we have to do the organizing work to address the power system so that the next generation doesn’t have to do it,” she continued.

Lee represents Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, in the southwest part of the state. With Pittsburgh and portions of more conservative Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, it is considered safe for Democrats in November, though it is still the most competitive of those represented by the Squad. Lee said “bread-and-butter” issues like health insurance and infrastructure investments matter to the voters in her district. But “they also care about national stuff, and international stuff, because we all contain all these things at once,” she said. “People aren’t looking for someone to dumb down policy … they’re looking for us to say it in a language that they understand,” she said.

With the 2024 congressional primaries underway, the issue that has come to define the divide between the progressive and institutional wings of the Democratic Party this cycle is the Israel-Hamas war, which began on October 7, 2023, when Hamas militants attacked the U.S.-allied country, killing more than a thousand people and taking more than 200 hostages. Israel immediately retaliated with an assault on the Gaza strip, saying Hamas leaders were hiding among more than 2 million Palestinian civilians. 

On the evening of October 7, Lee, on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, wrote that she was “heartbroken by the unfolding events in Israel and Palestine,” continuing: “I strongly condemn Hamas’ horrifying attack on children and innocent civilians.” She urged “de-escalation,” and said that there was “no military solution that will bring an end to this violence.”

Within days, the Squad made up most of the 10 votes against a Republican-offered resolution supporting Israel. Squad members, including Lee, then introduced a resolution calling for a ceasefire and humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians. They were both nonbinding messaging votes that denote a position but have no tangible impact. But the Squad, via its votes, firmly staked out a position to Biden’s left, and they have remained there since the war began. As the months have passed, and the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 34,000, the Democratic establishment has moved in the direction of the Squad and not vice versa. Last weekend, when the Squad voted against sending $26 billion more to Israel, they were joined by more than 25 other Democrats.

When the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) signaled that its affiliated super PAC, United Democracy Project, might spend as much as $100 million this year to defeat politicians deemed not sufficiently pro-Israel, Lee was assumed to be among their top targets — they had, after all, nearly blocked her election to the House back in 2022.

In the state House, Lee hadn’t had many official opportunities to wade into Middle East politics. But during the 2022 campaign, social media posts resurfaced in which Lee said that when American politicians said Israel had the right to defend itself, it reminded her of similarly worded justifications offered for George Zimmerman, a White neighborhood watchman in Florida who in 2012 shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed Black boy. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder. “I can't help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate& disproportionate force &power on weakened & marginalized ppl,” Lee wrote on May 14, 2021, during a two-weeks-long period of increased violence in the region.

United Democracy Project got involved in Lee’s Pennsylvania primary the next year — one of its earliest forays into electoral politics. Early polling had shown Lee at least 25 points ahead of her Democratic opponents. But, in its final month, United Democracy Project dumped an additional $1 million into the race that is believed to have put the primary back in play. An ad run by United Democracy Project against Lee in the closing weeks did not mention her views on Israel or Palestine. It did feature a pull quote from another post Lee made around the same time as her statements about Israel that said: “My idea is to totally dismantle their party.” The full post, one in a larger thread about the efficacy of third-party candidacies versus building influence within the two-party system, continued: “ … and the others. To build a new system is not easy work.” The ad, by saying Lee called herself a Democrat, suggested that maybe she wasn’t.

Lee ultimately won the primary by less than a percentage point. She went on to win the general election by nearly 13 points when Democrats had an eight-point advantage in the newly drawn district.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, Summer Lee, and Ayanna Pressley participate in a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol.
U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (from left), Summer Lee, and Ayanna Pressley participate in a press conference last October in Washington announcing a House resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. (Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via the Associated Press)

A screenshot of the full quote — and the idea that Lee isn’t sufficiently supportive of her party — surfaced again this year in Patel’s first television ad. The ad stated that Patel, who serves on the Edgewood Borough Council and was a 2020 delegate at the Democratic National Convention, was “100 percent for the Biden infrastructure bill but Summer Lee was not,” without offering evidence or examples of Lee’s opposition. Lee was not in Congress at the time of the bill’s passage and has brought millions of dollars in related grant money back to the district since.

Lee told The 19th that primaries, by nature, are a “time where people are assessing what you've done, what you want to do, what your visions are.” But she said the ads her opponents have run against her ignore her record and support for the White House’s agenda.

“There’s this other thing, where people are coming in and they’re trying to define you at the same time — you’re fine with the assessment happening, but you want it to be honest. So we're kind of fighting back against that,” she said.

Patel, the daughter of a single mother who emigrated from India, entered the primary race October 2. When Hamas brutally attacked Israel just five days later, it became a near-immediate differentiator in a district where the deadliest attack in history on Jewish Americans occurred in 2018, when a shooter killed 11 people and wounded six more at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. It also thrust Lee, as a member of the Squad, into the national conversation about to what extent criticism of the state of Israel — related to the current situation in Gaza or more broadly — is criticism of Jewish people and therefore antisemitism.

United Democracy Project never got involved in the Lee-Patel primary. Patel’s candidacy is being supported, though, by Moderate PAC, a group purportedly supporting moderate Democrats that has raised most of its money this cycle from Republican billionaire Jeffrey Yass, who has spent $50 million already on conservative priorities. While candidate campaigns cannot coordinate with outside PACs, Patel has not publicly denounced its efforts, or the money that is flowing from Yass, the richest man in Pennsylvania and an investor in Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform. Moderate PAC is spending more on ads supporting Patel than her own campaign.

Patel’s campaign did not make her available for an interview ahead of publication.

Kipp Dawson is a former coal miner-turned-school teacher in Pittsburgh who has since retired. The Jewish lesbian grew up in a biracial household with Black siblings, and she said that social justice work has always been one important way she lives her faith. Lee’s reelection bid for the state House was the first time that Dawson, a former union leader and activist for liberal causes, volunteered directly for a candidate. She pitched in again during Lee’s first election to the House and has been phone banking this time around.

Dawson said that as calls for a ceasefire have become more mainstream — Biden has started pushing Israeli leaders for a ceasefire, and Gallup polling from earlier this month showed that 55 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Democrats disapprove of Israel’s actions in Gaza — she hears less and less about it when she talks to voters. Two weekends ago, Dawson participated in a canvassing kickoff event for Lee at the Highland Park flower garden with Jewish leaders and voters. They wanted to “support her, as Jews, against the allegation that she is antisemitic,” she said. What she does still often hear from voters are concerns that Lee might be insufficiently supportive of Biden. It echoes talking points from Patel and Moderate PAC.

Lee, in the interview, questioned why her loyalty to the party is doubted while Democrats who sometimes align with Republicans, such as retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, or candidates who benefit from Republican money, get a pass. Yes, the Squad is at odds with party leaders at times. But they are not only out in their districts making the case for Biden’s infrastructure investments, they also have the potential to bring in voters not particularly energized to support the president’s reelection campaign, she said.

“In order to win in the future, we must expand the electorate. We must engage voters who are not our typical go-to voters, we have to really address the issues of the base. The base is changing. The base is Blacker, and Browner, it is poor and working class,” Lee said. “If you’re White, if you are from the heartland, if you’re swinging from moderate Democrat to moderate Republican, we treat them like gold. But if you’re a Black voter who feels disaffected, because you don’t see how this can impact you, or change, they swing from Democrats to nonvoter — and they’re treated like dirt.”

Lee added: “The party could really use people like me to build that trust, actually talking to people who are concerned, people who are disaffected, who are disenfranchised.”

Lee is considered a favorite to win on Tuesday. While there is no available public polling for the race, Lee’s ads are reaching a larger audience than those run by Patel, who has struggled to raise money. Lee has also surpassed Patel in outside spending, from groups that include the largest Muslim-American political action committee and a progressive coalition that formed specifically to defend Squad members facing blowback over their support for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Lee told the reporters with her as she toured infrastructure project sites that she was not approaching the primary as a foregone conclusion. But, once it is in the rearview mirror, she will be “all in” for Biden and the broader Democratic ticket come November, and will do her part to keep the party’s traditional swing voters in the coalition as well as bring in new voters.

“Right-wing extremists are absolutely … playing to win. It’s not just a volley. I think that for a long time our politics has felt like a volley — Democrats are in control; Republicans are in control; it volleys back and forth — but that’s actually not how the Republicans are playing right now. They’re playing for total control and permanent control,” she said.

Lee said that she, and other members of the Squad, know the stakes are high, pointing to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol and the Supreme Court ending the federal right to abortion.

“I still think that there’s this small part of us — American exceptionalism, maybe — that makes us believe that things will work out, that our country is destined to be okay, and that it doesn’t take small acts every day. Every election matters. Every debate around critical topics matters. And we have got to see it that way,” she finished.