U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, kicked off her reelection bid Thursday night by addressing a number of criticisms often leveled at progressive political leaders such as herself: They can’t get things done; they’re too radical; they can’t effectively represent everyone.

“Progressives have gotten the job done every day from day one,” she said during a speech at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union hall on the South Side. “Progressives are the reason we have the Inflation Reduction Act — all those dollars that are coming in for your infrastructure, for your climate resiliency. Those are progressives who fought for that, even when they had to stand up against their own friends.”

Her message was a hit to a room filled with supporters and other progressives. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey opened the evening’s event by giving a short speech, and those in the crowd included Sara Innamorato, Democratic nominee for county executive, and Matt Dugan, Democratic nominee for county district attorney.

Reginald Hickman, who taught U.S. Rep. Summer Lee in the Woodland Hills School District, said his former student has been “speaking truth to power since she’s been in high school.” (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Lee, who represents Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, tackled the complaint that she’s too radical by embracing the phrase.

“This system does need radical change,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of that. We need people willing to do things in ways that have never been done before. We’re making changes that we had never conceived before, so we do need to show up in new ways.”

The progressive movement that’s taking hold in the Pittsburgh region, Lee said, is creating a “blueprint, not just for Western Pennsylvania, but a blueprint for our entire country for what it looks like to lead in our policies and politics with compassion and equity and justice. This is a pragmatic movement. This is a rational and a strategic movement. And we have moved this country.”

Lee said progressive campaigns such as hers have expanded the electorate to include marginalized voices who’ve been ignored in the past, while still serving all constituents in a politically diverse district. She pushed back against politicians and pundits who say this isn’t possible, and that use wedge issues to pit voting groups against one another.

“I’m here to tell you,” she said, “whether you’re Black or white or brown or Jewish or Muslim or Christian, gay or straight or trans, poor or working class, people of all genders and age and economic status, whether you’re from Pittsburgh or Braddock or Westmoreland County — there is a space for you. We can serve you.”

Lee took office eight months ago, in a session that began with U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s chaotic and ultimately successful bid to become speaker of the House. During her tenure, she has seen a continued rise in right-wing extremism and white supremacy. The messages espoused by those groups found traction during the presidency of Donald Trump and still get amplified on social media. 

“If we don’t have bold voices in Congress right now, the growing tide of fascism will come to our shore,” Lee said. “Do you think that because we got Trump out of office that the cancer of Trumpism is over? Working-class people, Black people, brown people — they warned you eight years ago that what Trump represented wasn’t just himself. He represented an opportunity for people who’ve been waiting in the shadows so they can move our country in a different direction.”

The extreme right is lashing out because it’s threatened by what Lee described as a “passionate, inclusive and equitable” progressive political movement.

“If this progressive movement didn’t have the power to bring in so many people from so many different walks of life,” she said, “we wouldn’t see the insurrection, we wouldn’t see threats to democracy that we’re seeing, we wouldn’t see white supremacy rising up as boldly as if it were 1919.”

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee gets a greeting from Steven Kelley, union office cleaner and board member of Service Employees International Union 32BJ. Kelley introduced Lee at the launch. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Lee touted the federal money brought home to Western Pennsylvania — $600 million, she said, for a range of projects, including housing, bridges and roads, and for communities that have in the past seen little investment.

Not everyone is happy with her policies or politics, Lee acknowledged.

Some people, she said, “want us to turn the clock back because we’ve made some people uncomfortable. I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m not new and bright and shiny like I was in 2018 [the year she ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania House]. But you know what I am? I’m battle tested.”

She represents a district whose voters want her to tackle issues such as climate change, housing and environmental justice and that stands up for working-class people, she said.

“We are voting for the country we are building, not the country that existed in the past,” she said. “We are  building a movement here in Western Pennsylvania that will change the shape of America.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.