Five minutes into U.S. Rep. Summer Lee’s remarks at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty on Sunday, a tall man wearing a tan overcoat and multicolored newsboy cap entered the venue and stood unnoticed among a small cluster of people in a darkened aisle about 15 feet from the stage.
Lee was at that moment talking about new opportunities in politics — young people were showing up to vote in record numbers, she said, they’re ready to hold leaders to account, “and we need to be ready to meet that moment.” Her cadence quickened. “So I want to ask you, if you are here today, if you are excited about what we’re able to do, the history that we’re going to make, let me tell you ….”
And as Lee paused for breath, the man in the aisle spoke, his voice barely audible from several feet away: “I’m here for Summer Lee.”
Her rhythm interrupted, Lee stopped speaking. She shielded her eyes from the stage lights and squinted into the crowd.
“Is that the mayor?” she asked.
It was then that Lee noticed the tall man — Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who’d popped unexpectedly into her ceremonial swearing-in on what for him was a busy day.
“All right, everybody,” Lee said to the crowd. “It’s the mayor’s birthday today.”
The audience broke into applause, for they’d come to the event partly for the history, which was now on full display. In the middle of Black History Month, the state’s first Black congresswoman had greeted Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor, just minutes after they’d heard from Austin Davis, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor.
Lee seized the moment.
Nodding to Gainey, she said, “He broke down barriers in the city of Pittsburgh. He paved the way for me and Austin to break barriers at the state level and the federal level. And we’re going to bring more people with us.”
The exchange with Gainey was one of several moments that underlined just how much politics in Allegheny County has changed in the past few years. “History” was the word of the day. In fact, Lee seems destined to dance with history: Her official swearing-in was delayed by four days of Republican squabbling over who should sit in the U.S. House speaker’s chair. (They ultimately decided on Kevin McCarthy after 15 votes, and, yes, that’s history, too.)
After the symbolic swearing-in by Common Pleas Judge Nicola Henry-Taylor, Lee thanked her family and supporters, then reflected on the meaning of the election that sent her to Washington.
“People in Western Pennsylvania decided that this is the time when we are going to fight for each other,” she said. “We were tired of being told that we can’t have politicians and politics that center each and every one of us, that we can’t have folks who look and sound like us and care about us, that we can’t talk about clean air, clean water or racial justice, and the labor movement. That we can’t talk about good schools, and we can’t talk about safe communities. They said we couldn’t talk about how we’re going to bring together communities that have never done anything together.”
The last point became the focus of the event’s first speaker: Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council. He and Lee had clashed in the past over energy policy, something Kelly quickly acknowledged from the podium.
“Not too long ago, Summer Lee and I didn’t always see eye to eye,” he said. “She let me know very early on that she was not afraid of me, and I let her know that I was not afraid of her. So that’s politics in Pittsburgh.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed their relationship.
Kelly said Lee, then representing the 34th State House District, was the first politician to call and offer assistance to those who were laid off when COVID-19 forced businesses to shut down or drastically curtail operations. A friendship developed between the two, and Kelly told the Union Progress after the event that he and Lee were able to disagree on policy but come together on common goals.
“We all want better health care, better wages and to be able to retire with dignity,” he said. “In the past, you dug your trenches before you even spoke. Now we’re having good conversations, understanding how we can come together, not what drives us apart.”
From the podium, Kelly said he noticed that Lee was different from most political leaders.
“There was something happening,” he said. “It wasn’t politics. The narrative was changing … this was more than a congressional race, this was about Summer Lee changing the narrative for generations to come.”
Jasiri X of 1Hood Media then took the stage and returned to the theme of history, saying to those in attendance, “If you knocked on a door, if you signed a petition, if you defended Summer in person or online, you participated in history.”
He then delivered a spoken-word piece titled “Our Generation,” which served as a call to action on a wide range of causes, including police brutality, environmental justice, voting rights and mass incarceration.
“Our generation will fight for freedom, fight for justice, fight for equality, fight for 15, fight for representation, fight for the right to unionize,” he said. He urged people to care for the sick, the elderly, the young, the disabled, those with mental illness “and we will not ask if you are insured or not — our generation.”
He ended his piece with a declaration: “We will fight to make our dream our reality — our generation.”
Davis, a state representative from McKeesport before his election last November as lieutenant governor, told the audience that “in 2023, we’re still reaching new heights and making new Black history.” Davis stressed Lee will be a “fighter for working class and marginalized folks.”
He said Lee learned from her upbringing in the Mon Valley that “hard work, grit and determination would change not only her circumstance but would change her community and change this world.”
Video tributes arrived from more than a dozen political leaders, including Gov. Josh Shapiro, U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.) and Greg Casar (D-Texas).
The event kicked off with a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by local singer Dejah Monea.