Summer Lee, a Democratic legislator with a track record of winning tough elections and backing fellow Democrats in critical races, faces a supremely cynical assault as she seeks her party’s nomination for an open US House seat in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. A multimillion-dollar media campaign against Lee, paid for by donors that frequently back Republicans, is smearing the 34-year-old state representative as a threat to the Democratic Party who doesn’t merit a place on its ballot line.
The attacks are wildly wrongheaded. Lee is exactly what a Democrat should be at a moment when voters are demanding that the party deliver fundamental change. Lee is a dynamic grassroots campaigner who argues that “we can liberate ourselves through organizing.” She advocates for popular programs, including a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. She is willing to call out the compromises of both major parties, yet is resolute about Democrats’ prevailing in the 2022 midterm elections that have become a battle over the future of American democracy.
Backed by major unions and prominent elected officials in her Pittsburgh-area district, as well as national progressive leaders including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, Lee has been celebrated as a rising star in the party as she campaigns to become the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress.
Yet, in recent weeks, she has faced a steadily intensifying assault from a group falsely claiming that she wants to tear apart the party. “I’ve been the target of the most expensive hate campaign of any candidate running, by a super PAC that sponsors Republicans who support insurrection,” explained Lee. That’s not hyperbole.
Indeed, the United Democracy Project, which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee launched last December, is making a major play in the Democratic primary in western Pennsylvania’s 12th district. As of May 12, the group had spent $1,816,413 to attack Lee and another $537,285 to prop up her leading rival in the primary, Steve Irwin, according to the money-in-politics tracking group Open Secrets. (Progressive University of Pittsburgh Law School professor Jerry Dickinson is also bidding for the Democratic nod.)
Yet, even as its new project is attacking Lee, AIPAC’s political arm is also backing a number of right-wing Republican members of the US House in this election cycle, including incendiary Ohio Representative Jim Jordan.
Why is the United Democracy Project—which says its missions is to elect “strong supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship”—going after Lee, who says she “absolutely” respects Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state? The answer may have something to do with the fact that, at the same time that she speaks of the need for Jewish people to have “a safe haven,” Lee also says it’s vital to “to protect and stand up for Palestinians.” That balanced stance has won her praise from J Street, the national group that organizes supporters of Israel who seek peace in the Middle East, and on-the-ground support from Bend the Arc, Jewish Action’s Pittsburgh affiliate.
Lee’s positions on Middle East issues are in sync with positions that polls say are embraced by Democratic voters, which may explain why the United Democracy Project doesn’t mention them in its attacks against her. Instead, the group seeks to portray the candidate as a bad Democrat. A TV ad the group is airing begins, “She calls herself a ‘Democrat’ but Summer Lee said she wanted to ‘dismantle’ the Democratic Party. Dismantle it. And she’s done everything in her power to do just that. When Joe Biden was running against Trump, Summer Lee attacked Biden’s character, said he’d take us backwards.” The ad’s ominous tagline announces: “Summer Lee: More interested in fighting Democrats than getting results.”
Lee’s talk of dismantling the Democratic Party came during an argument with critics of her embrace of the party, during which she was addressing the need to reform a party that has faced frequent criticism for failing to stand as effectively as it should on behalf of economic, social, and racial justice. As for her criticisms of Biden, they came during the 2020 Democratic primary competition, when she was a supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and when her comments about the former vice president were mild compared with those of many other Democrats. When Biden was nominated, Lee joined Sanders and union leaders to campaign for the ticket in the fall of 2020, making vital arguments on Biden’s behalf in the closely contested state of Pennsylvania. That fact goes unmentioned in a widely circulated mailer from the United Democracy Project that suggests Lee had a hard time choosing between Biden and Donald Trump.
The attacks on Lee have grown so disingenuous that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman wrote, “If the commercials and mailers currently aimed at undermining the campaign of Rep. Summer Lee…are any indication, the contempt for the intelligence of Allegheny County’s voters is running especially deep these days.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, state Representative Sara Innamorato, and other prominent Pennsylvania Democrats sent a letter to Irwin, in which they urged Lee’s rival to renounce the attacks on Lee. “As Democrats from across the commonwealth, we find it shameful that you would team up with a corporate super PAC that has endorsed over 100+ pro-insurrectionist Republicans to attack and smear our Democratic colleague, state Rep. Summer Lee, as not a Democrat,” the letter read,
The whole sorry story of the attempt to keep Lee out of Congress by the United Democracy Project and other super PACs, which are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporate interests and wealthy donors, has frustrated progressives who are working to build a more diverse and energetic Democratic Party that appeals to new voters. Noting these attacks against dynamic young progressives running in upcoming primaries—including Lee, Jessica Cisneros in Texas, and Nida Allam in North Carolina—Sanders announced that he would travel to Pittsburgh Thursday to campaign with Lee:
Right now, in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina and other states, corporate Democratic PACs are spending over $13 million to defeat progressive women of color who are fighting for the needs of a struggling working class,” said Sanders. “Why are these corporate Democratic interests spending so much to defeat these women? Because they know that in Congress, Summer Lee, Jessica Cisneros and Nida Allam will fight for an agenda that represents the needs of workers and not large corporations and billionaires.
What these campaigns share in common is [that they ask] whether the Democratic Party will stand with working families or with the billionaire campaign contributors who want to control both major political parties. In my view, if the Democratic Party chooses wealthy donors over the working class it will cease to be a viable national political party in the coming years.