Photo: Summer Lee (left) attends a pro-union rally in Pittsburgh. Credit: @SummerForPA
The Democratic Party primary for Pennsylvania’s 12th District in the House of Representatives, which includes parts of Pittsburgh and neighboring areas, is locked in a three-way contest. Current frontrunner, progressive Summer Lee, faces University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson and former Republican congressional staffer Steve Irwin.
Pro-corporate forces have tried to smear Lee’s campaign in response to many of her positions, but none have caused such an uproar from establishment political groups as her stance on Palestine. The corporate-owned Democratic Party elite has worked overtime to sabotage candidates who do not unquestioningly support Israel, and this is especially on display in Lee’s election.
Lee is a former organizer for Fight for $15 and has the support of many working-class Pittsburghers. She currently holds office representing the 34th District in the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives. This district includes many working-class neighborhoods, such as Braddock and Homestead, that have faced severe deindustrialization since the steel industry largely outsourced their operations beginning in the 1970s. Lee was elected to this seat in 2018 in a race against 20-year incumbent right-wing Democrat Paul Costa. Since appearing on the local political scene, she has excited many in the area who support her messages of anti-racism, pro-LGBTQ equality, and strong support for unionization.
According to polls, Lee maintains a comfortable 25% lead. However, this hasn’t stopped the Democratic Party establishment from throwing their weight behind Steve Irwin, a virtually unknown politician and union buster even at a time of unprecedented new union activity, including recent huge wins by Starbucks workers in Pittsburgh. In contrast to Summer Lee and Jerry Dickinson, both of whom hold thousands in student debt, Steve Irwin is a millionaire who owns millions of dollars spread through real estate, country clubs, and ownership of a union-busting law firm called Leech Tischman.
A recent flashpoint of Israel’s apartheid policy has been the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, where Israeli soldiers have evicted Palestinians violently from their homes. This has led to mass protests across the United States against Israel’s occupation and its backers in the U.S. ruling class.
Last year, when Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah during the holy month of Ramadan, Lee took to Twitter to defend Palestinians’ right to their homes and safety. Lee tweeted, “The US has nvr shown leadership in safeguarding human rights of folks its othered. But as we fight against injustice here in the mvmnt for Blk lives, we must stand against injustice everywhere. Inhumanities against the Palestinian ppl cannot be tolerated or justified.” These comments earned Summer Lee special attention from supporters of Israel, who have since taken it upon themselves to smear her campaign.
Prior to the primary, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council interviewed all three of the primary candidates in an attempt to equate sympathy for Palestinians with anti-Semitism. In his interview with the Jewish Federation, Irwin set himself apart by slamming the peaceful pro-Palestine BDS movement. He remarked, “BDS [the boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel] … it’s not helpful. They are statements that undermine Israel’s right to exist. Israel is a pluralistic society … Israel has a right to exist, and I’ll do everything to make sure Israel’s here.”
Support for Israeli occupation a project of the entire ruling class
Israel is well-known for its grave and unceasing human rights violations against Palestinians. Israeli soldiers conduct a brutal occupation, illegally evicting Palestinians from their homes to make way for settlers, many of whom are from the United States. The Israeli regime not only occupies Palestinian land, but also blockades Palestinians into Gaza, which is regularly bombed by Israel. Gaza has been described as the “largest open-air prison in the world,” as the people of Gaza are not allowed to leave, live under a blockade, and have to share a scarce amount of resources available in the tiny strip of land.
The U.S. ruling class’ unwavering support for the Israeli occupation is well documented. The United States sends about $3 billion per year to Israel, the majority of which is used to arm the Israeli military. This relationship is based on a desire to secure an outpost for U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. As a senator, Joe Biden openly admitted, “3 billion dollars a year to Israel is the best investment America makes. If Israel didn’t exist, America would have to invent an Israel to protect America’s interest in the region.”
In the halls of Congress, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, commonly known as AIPAC, lobbies for strong pro-Israel candidates to gain seats in Congress. AIPAC funnels huge amounts of money to politicians, who in turn vow to advance pro-Israel policies. Joe Biden has received a total of $4,227,644 from pro-Israel lobbying groups like throughout his career. AIPAC is a huge player in shaping public policy toward Israel and holds outsized influence in Congress. Any sort of criticism of AIPAC earns members of Congress a barrage of attacks from pro-Israel forces, such as when Ilhan Omar criticized AIPAC for funding campaigns and politicians in 2019.
Israel lobby influences election
AIPAC has been particularly busy in the PA-12 primary. Over the past few weeks, many Pittsburghers have received constant ads in the mail that attack Summer Lee. These mailers are from a group listed on the ads as United Democracy Project. Although these deceptive ads make no mention of Israel, the UDP’s website describes the group as “an organization comprised of American citizens — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — united in the belief that America’s partnership with our democratic ally Israel benefits both countries.” UDP has spent $1.8 million on anti-Lee ads in the mail, on YouTube and on cable television. UDP received $8.5 million from AIPAC this year.
Other AIPAC-funded groups have also entered the PA-12 race to get Steve Irwin elected over Summer Lee. Democratic Majority for Israel has put about $400,000 into pro-Irwin ads in the mail and on TV this election cycle. $393,000 of the $1.2 million raised by Irwin’s campaign has been raised from donors contacted via AIPAC.
Irwin’s campaign, though not publicly stating any connection to AIPAC, has responded to questions saying that what the ads say “appear to be true.” An Irwin campaign spokesperson recognized AIPAC’s huge influence in Congress, stating, “Every single member of the Democratic leadership in Congress, as well as President Obama, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and 20 members of the House Progressive Caucus have been endorsed by AIPAC. Steve Irwin is proud to stand up for the Jewish state of Israel and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”
Elections bought and sold to the highest bidder
This election is just one part of AIPAC’s larger strategy to aggressively campaign to pack Congress with pro-Israeli apartheid politicians. In Cleveland, AIPAC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat progressive Nina Turner, who has expressed sympathy for Gazans under blockade and occupation. Just through UDP alone, AIPAC has already spent $3.5 million in 2022 in primaries where candidates with any sort of sympathy for Palestinians enter the race.
In contrast to the huge resources at AIPAC’s disposal, Lee has raised $300,000. One point that has become abundantly clear to western Pennsylvanians following this election is that corporate, pro-war groups will do their best to buy elections to further their interests.