Summer Lee wins 12th Congressional District, will become Pa.’s first Black congresswoman

Democrat Summer Lee speaks to supporters on election night

Democrat Summer Lee speaks to supporters on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (Kiley Koscinski/WESA)

This story originally appeared on WESA.

State Rep. Summer Lee has been elected to represent Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She will be the state’s first Black congresswoman.

“Our communities have been waiting far, far too long for this,” Lee said of her historic win. “This is victory, not just for me but for each and every one of us.”

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, with 85% of the vote counted, Lee had secured 55.7% of the vote to Republican Mike Doyle’s 44.3% of the vote. Doyle conceded shortly before midnight.

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“Tonight, the voters of the 12th Congressional District came to the polls and made their voice heard,” Doyle said in his concession statement. “While we came up short in the 12th Congressional District, I look forward to continuing to serve my neighbors in Plum and supporting candidates who share my values in future elections.”

Lee was joined Tuesday evening by a small crowd of supporters, family, politicians and community organizers at Emerson’s in Downtown Pittsburgh. Lee stressed that her win was about a larger progressive movement in southwestern Pennsylvania, and she said she had many organizers to thank for the night.

“When it looked like it was getting bleak, we had friends come from all over,” Lee said. “We stood up and we fought back, and we sent a message… We’re not going to be intimidated.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who secured his own historic victory last year, joined Lee alongside state Reps. Sara Innamorato and Dan Frankel, both of whom won their own bids for reelection Tuesday. Also in attendance were state Rep.-elect La’Tasha D. Mayes, who ran unopposed for the seat in state House District 24, and a dozen members of local progressive activist groups, including the Alliance for Police Accountability and 1Hood media.

Lee was twice victorious on Tuesday, holding onto her state House seat as well. A special election will be held next year to replace her in Harrisburg.

Pittsburgh dominates the 12th District. That’s why observers expected all of the drama in the race to replace longtime Democratic Congressman Mike Doyle, who announced his retirement last year, would take place in the May primary. Instead, the tension continued through the year until the general election, as Lee faced strong headwinds, outside money and a Republican challenger who has the same name as — but is no relation to — the outgoing incumbent.

The 12th District grew slightly more purple after picking up conservative portions of Westmoreland County during a redistricting process earlier this year. And internal polling suggested the race would be tighter than previously expected because Democrats faced a tough midterm cycle favoring Republicans.

But Lee said conservatives in Westmoreland County care about some of the same issues as liberals in Pittsburgh.

People “care about how much their basic needs cost. Their groceries and their gas bills. They care about a living wage,” she said. “These are things that truly connect us. And I believe that’s actually what makes progressives and our progressive messaging resonate.”

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Lee’s victory Tuesday was not a foregone conclusion.

One factor in the District 12 race had been the potential for name confusion. The retiring incumbent said his office received numerous calls from constituents who were confused about why his name appeared on the ballot. The Republican challenger, meanwhile, had said his run was not an attempt to cash in on such confusion — but some of his campaign’s messaging arguably blurred partisan lines as well as distinctions between his “trusted name” and that of the incumbent.

Another factor: the large amounts of money spent to oppose Lee’s campaign. A political committee founded by AIPAC, arguably the foremost pro-Israel interest group in the country, poured capital into ads criticizing Lee’s support of criminal justice reform. The group spent more than $2 million in ads against Summer Lee in the spring and put down another $1 million for ads and mailings last week.

Lee said one of her goals in Congress will be to restrict outside money from impacting races like hers.

“What we want to see is that no other candidate has to endure what we endured in a race like this,” Lee said. “No one likes the type of politics that we saw play out here.”

As a state House member, Lee has played a key role in galvanizing a progressive movement in Allegheny County that has transformed the local Democratic Party. At times, that has put her at odds with the party’s local establishment. Lee’s agenda includes support for a “Medicare for All” expansion of government health insurance, abolishing a federal rule that prohibits the use of tax dollars for abortion care and ending mandatory minimum prison sentences. She’s also been backed by progressives such as Bernie Sanders — right up to the final hours of her campaign.

The Republican Doyle, a long-time insurance industry executive, used such support against her in a bid to portray her as too far to the left, and he opposed much of her agenda. The Plum councilor was endorsed by conservative groups such as Gun Owners of America, but he touted his bipartisan work to shore up spending on school security in the borough.

When asked about what her victory means for the future of Black politicians in Pennsylvania, Lee said she hopes she’s the “first but not last.”

“It’s not going to be accessible until we can run races and not know that we’re going to face racialized fear … that the ads won’t play to people’s fears and instincts,” Lee said. “Until we’re able to eradicate our politics of that, it is not truly accessible for those young Black kids. But it’s worth fighting for.”

Lee noted that her story follows a path others laid for her. She said success stories like hers and that of Mayor Gainey are possible only because of those who paved the way.

“There are Pittsburghers who came before me and came before Ed who took swings at this,” she said. “They faced so many barriers and obstacles that we didn’t have to because they knocked them down for us… I don’t take it for granted. It’s a long time coming.”

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