Summer Lee
Summer Lee told NOTUS the intense national focus on her position on Israel detracts from other issues voters care about. Matt Rourke/AP

Does the Progressive Movement Still Have Juice? Summer Lee’s About to Find Out.

Violence in Israel and Gaza has shaken Democratic politics, and progressives in western Pennsylvania are trying to hang on.

Rep. Summer Lee’s primary isn’t just about Summer Lee: It’s a test of whether the young progressive movement in western Pennsylvania still has the influence that launched her political career six years ago, especially now with fighting in Israel amplifying intraparty divides.

“We have totally surprised everyone with how we’ve been able to win the mayor of Pittsburgh’s office, how we’ve been able to win the Allegheny County Executive, how every board, every council, every everything around here now has at least several of us,” said Kenny Mostern, the local leader in Pittsburgh for JVP Action, the PAC associated with Jewish Voice for Peace.

“The trend is for our numbers to increase. But they’re doing everything they can to put an end to it.”

Lee was a political newcomer when she defeated longtime incumbent Democrat Paul Costa for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2018. Powered by progressives, she was elected to Congress in 2022 with a razor-thin majority in the primary. Her rise in politics signaled a new generation shaking up the long-standing Democratic establishment in Allegheny County.

But now, as Lee faces a primary challenge in less than six weeks, she’s bracing for another close race, one centered on Israel and Gaza even before Oct. 7.

Pro-Israel groups are boosting Lee’s primary opponent, Bhavini Patel, who says Lee is too “extreme.” Lee has the benefits of incumbency, drawing the support of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee for the first time and the endorsement of House leadership.

Despite their outspoken differences over Israel, she also has the strong support of Sen. John Fetterman.

“I mean, she’s my congresswoman,” Fetterman told NOTUS. “I think it demonstrates that two people can disagree on issues, and we connect on some issues and disagree on others, and it’s not something that disqualifies her. She’s very popular, she’s a hard worker, and I don’t have a purity test.”

After the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Lee, in a statement, said she “strongly” condemned the “violence, terrorism and hostage-taking by Hamas.” She has since become one of the most vocal members of Congress for an immediate cease-fire and taken votes that put her in the minority of her party. Just over a week after the Hamas attack, Lee co-sponsored a resolution calling for “an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”

Lee told NOTUS a community of voters in her district is deeply impacted by the war and the “uncertain future of the entire region.” But she said the intense national focus on her position on Israel detracts from other issues voters care about.

“There are also more people in our district who Israel and Palestine is not in the top 10 issues that they are thinking about right now, and it’s unfortunate that the media focuses heavily on a minority population of our district,” she said.

“The average voter in PA-12 wants to talk about gas prices and housing prices, and whether or not we’re going to fix our crumbling infrastructure, or whether or not we’re going to continue to have amongst the most polluted air in the nation,” she said. “Those are issues that people really, really want to have addressed.”

In both her state and congressional races, Lee has focused on engaging new voters in the political process, arguing that people were “yearning for a new perspective” when she ran.

“We were intentional, and we were dedicated to expanding the electorate,” Lee said. “If you are Black or brown, a lot of them had not felt a strong reason to vote since [Barack] Obama.”

Tanisha Long, an activist and community organizer in Pittsburgh who supports Lee, said voters for a long time hadn’t been motivated to participate because all they saw were entrenched local leaders who had “quit doing the work.”

“They stopped campaigning the way they should campaign because they were so used to having the vote that they thought they didn’t have to work for it,” Long said.

Leeann Younger, chair of the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee, first got involved in politics in 2016 and said she’s where she is now because of that grassroots change in the local party.

“Summer Lee and her coalition brought together a group of people who are closest to the socioeconomic pain, whether people who were experiencing that pain or the people who were advocating for those left out and left behind,” Younger said.

While Lee sailed to victories in both her state races, her run for Congress opened her electorate to the outer stretches of the Pittsburgh suburbs, including parts of Westmoreland County, where more moderate Democrats weren’t supportive of the progressive wave of lawmakers.

In that first run in the Democratic primary, Lee faced Steve Irwin, who was backed by incumbent Rep. Mike Doyle and was endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. From the start, support for Israel was a central focus in the race, particularly in Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood with the highest concentration of Jewish people in the district, and where 11 people were killed in an antisemitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

In the last month of the race, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s campaign PAC — United Democracy Project — put over $1 million in ads in the 12th District attacking Lee.

Lee won by less than 1% and now faces a similar challenge in Patel. She entered the race Oct. 1, less than a week before Hamas’ attack on Israel.

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More than 40 rabbis and cantors in the Pittsburgh area signed an open letter this month expressing disappointment with Lee’s position on Israel. Patel said that Lee has “consistently sidelined the community” of Squirrel Hill.

“When your community is hurting and facing a lot of pain, I think where you spend your time and how you respond to your community is really reflective of what your priorities are,” Patel said.

To Marshall Cohen, it’s a deciding factor. A member of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, he supported Lee in 2020 but voted for Patel in this year’s endorsement process alongside nearly 300 other members.

Cohen said he became concerned by Lee’s stance on Israel after her vote in July against a symbolic resolution reaffirming support of Israel, introduced after Rep. Ilhan Omar referred to Israel as a “racist state.”

Cohen reached out to Lee’s chief of staff and set up a meeting for her to answer his local committee’s questions about her position. She said she had talked with them for over an hour.

“I was not entirely happy with her issues, but I wasn’t overly upset about it … but overall she expressed support for Jewish people. And so, we kind of just went about our business after that,” Cohen said. “And then Oct. 7 happened.”

“She makes her statements, but her actions belie her statements,” Cohen said. He sat down with Patel for over an hour, and then decided he’d support her instead.

“Bhavini Patel gives us all the great progressive votes that Summer Lee gives us regarding women’s reproductive health, justice, gun control, all those issues, but when it comes to this critical issue of Israel, which is difficult as hell, I don’t think Summer Lee is contributing anything positive to how it eventually gets solved,” he said.

Patel argues Lee is out of step with the Democratic Party. In her first television ad of the campaign, Patel said Lee wants to “dismantle the Democratic Party” and “undermine” President Joe Biden.

“There’s a desire to sort of reject extremism on both sides, including within our party,” Patel told NOTUS.

Patel said the biggest priority for the fall is to get Biden reelected, and “the only way that we can do that is if we are unequivocally behind him.”

Lee called the attack “disingenuous.” “What we don’t need right now is a rubber stamp,” she said in response.

“I know for a fact that a little critique or a little push does not phase someone as intelligent, as competent as President Biden, because he’s been doing this for too long.”

Lee said her partnership with the Biden administration is strong.

“He doesn’t need a yes-man, and he ain’t worried about one,” she said.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.