Summer Lee Elected to Congress in Historic Victory over Dark Money

Summer Lee has built unique labor-environmental alliances in Western PA and beat incumbents with her organization UNITE (Photo: Summer Lee for Congress)

PITTSBURGH, PA. – Today, State Representative Summer Lee scored a historic victory by being elected as the first Black woman to Congress from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. While other progressive challengers have faltered in Congressional races nationwide, thirty-four-year-old Lee was able to win despite over $2 million in attack ads funded by AIPAC. 

Lee was able to win as a result of building a political machine. Over a four-year period UNITE! PAC was able to beat incumbent Democratic state legislators, county council members, judges, and ultimately elect progressive Ed Gainey as the city’s first Black mayor over incumbent Bill Peduto. 

In addition to AIPAC,  Lee was also heavily opposed by the Steelworkers union and many construction unions due to her criticism of fracking and call for crackdowns on pollution from US Steel.

Lee was able to challenge this opposition by building a multiracial coalition of environmental, labor, civil rights, and youth activists. 

After winning State Representative in 2018, Lee founded the UNITE! PAC, which began primarying Democrats in Pittsburgh. In 2019, Lee backed Bethany Hallam, who toppled County Council President John DeFazio, the district director of the Steelworkers in Pennsylvania. (DeFazio died last year.) Then, Lee backed two-state representative candidates, Emily Kinkead and Jessica Benham, who beat incumbents, as well as several judges.

In 2020, Lee backed state Rep. Ed Gainey in a successful bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto, becoming the first Black Mayor of Pittsburgh. On election night, Gainey started off his victory speech by thanking Summer Lee.

“I couldn’t do it without her. Summer really inspired me and gave me the confidence that I could win,” Gainey told me at the time.

Almost immediately at Gainey’s victory party, people began saying that Summer Lee could be elected as the next Congresswoman from Pittsburgh. With Gainey’s support as well as the support of major community groups, environmental groups, civil rights groups, and unions such as SEIU, UFCW, UE, and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Lee was able to build a coalition that won Pittsburgh’s congressional seat. 

Lee says that the key to her organizing success is the intersectional approach she takes. “It has taken really until the last four years for us to see a change in this place,” Lee said earlier this year. “When we build movements that include all of us—when we build movements that are big enough for all of us—then our movements cannot be defeated.”

(For more on Lee’s environmental-labor coalition, check out our in-depth story “Summer Lee’s Organizing Method Has Upended Pittsburgh.”)

Earlier in the day, Lee predicted that if she won the race it would provide a model for how grassroots organizing can overcome dark money. 

“To win this race would be to send a message that this is not the type of politics that we accept in our party, these are not the type of politics that we will accept in our region,” said Lee at the press conference earlier today. “We wanna send a message today that we can prevail on a positive message, on a positive vision that lifts people up and doesn’t just tear folks down.”  

Today, the forces of dark money were defeated and Summer Lee was elected.

“We showed them today, We showed them throughout this race that when we build coalitions, that when we cross all over the county, that when we cross and build a multiracial coalition, multi-generational movement of people of all colors, of all religions, of all genders, of all races, of all ages that when we come together, we can’t stopped,” Lee declared in her victory speech

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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