U.S. Rep Summer Lee participates in a Democratic candidates’ forum in Pittsburgh, Sunday Jan. 28, 2024 (screen capture)
PITTSBURGH— The three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District came out swinging during a forum at Carnegie Mellon University on Sunday, not only demonstrating their differences but their willingness to criticize their fellow Democrats in areas of disagreement. And there were plenty of areas of disagreement.
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-12th District), Edgewood Borough Councilmember Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Center for Victims, took the stage at the forum moderated by journalist Chris Potter of WESA-FM, Avalon Sueiro, president of the CMU College Democrats, and Heidi Norman, who works for the City of Pittsburgh and is a Democratic committeewoman in the city’s 14th Ward.
The first questioner asked the candidates to offer their thoughts on the role of a Congressional representative in navigating the complex situation in the Middle East. Lee has received criticism for her position supporting a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.
MacDonald said her father was an immigrant from the Middle East, who wanted to “assimilate” and to have people judge him on who he was. She said she was passionate about putting together a coalition of peacemakers in the region, although recognized it would not be easy. “I think if we work together and continue with the Abraham Accords, and get that process going that we can find room for everybody in this world.”
Patel criticized Lee for not attending local rallies with the Jewish community in the days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and for tweeting out information about a hospital bombing in Gaza that was later found to be erroneous. “To me that’s stoking hatred, that’s stoking antisemitism and it puts people in our communities in a tragic, dangerous position,” Patel said. “That is unacceptable.”
Lee replied that it was a subject that elicits pain in multiple communities. “The reality is, is that peace— a just and lasting peace— has to start with centering all of the folks who are impacted, and we have to be incredibly clear that there is no pathway to peace if we can only talk about security for one community, or as we continue to pit communities against each other,” she said. “Peace and justice and liberation and accountability for Israelis is not counter to peace and justice for Palestinians or Muslims or for Arabs.”
She added that “anybody who would use this issue as a political wedge is not serious and does not understand the gravity of the situation.”
The two sparred again on a question about the role and responsibility of the United States in geopolitical conflicts around the world.
Patel said as someone with a degree in international relations she has spent time “navigating these issues and getting a sense of what’s going on.” She noted that Lee had tweeted information that the president doesn’t have the authority to authorize airstrikes in the Red Sea against the Houthi rebels, who have attacked ships in the area and disrupted global commerce.
“When we’re unable to actually take these foreign policy concerns in a serious way, and engage with them in an intellectual way, and we’re just focused on posting, rather than understanding the challenges, I think that it sets us up for challenges,” Patel said. “I think it puts us in a precarious position as a country.”
Lee countered that her preference was to center American diplomacy in global conflicts. “The reality is that while an international studies degree is important, I have a law degree,” she said. “And no, the president does not have the authority to declare war or offensive strikes without the prior authorization of Congress.” Patel attempted to interrupt but Potter admonished her to respect the other candidates’ time.
Despite the best efforts by moderators to prevent delays and interruptions, the audience was fairly vocal throughout the event, alternately applauding or heckling the candidates based on their answers. At one point during a response to a question about the role of Congress in supporting gender-affirming care, MacDonald reacted directly to the audience booing her.
“My opponent — the people who live in her district have no families, they live in squalor, they don’t have…” MacDonald began, before audience members shouted back. “You think you know, right, well guess what, I worked there. I have helped those communities.”
When the heckling had died down, MacDonald added, “I don’t need to take that. My record speaks for itself. I’ve walked the walk, I’ve talked the talk, I help families. I help everybody. I don’t have a prejudiced, white, black, purple, pink bone in my body. I love everybody. And I love all of you too, even if we disagree.”
The candidates were asked how they would engage younger voters, and in her response, Patel continued a line of criticism she has levied at Lee before: that she thinks the progressive Democrat does not fully support President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“With the Supreme Court overturning affirmative action, Roe v Wade, it really does come down to unequivocally standing with our president,” Patel said. “We really have zero room for error, and heading into the 2024 general election when we think about the future of this country, when we think about the future of our democracy, it really is all hands on deck, and it’s going to come from Western Pennsylvania. It’s going to be Pennsylvania that drives that conversation and drives that turnout and we need to start taking that seriously.”
Lee said the Democratic coalition of 2024 would include Black and brown voters, young voters and progressive voters, “precisely what Western Pennsylvania looks like,” noting that progressives had won decisive victories in recent elections in that end of the state.
“We actually need people who are going to be bold and push the president— just a little bit— so that we can get to [student] debt cancellation,” Lee said. “We need young people who are going to push the administration on climate change, because we have to meet the scope and the scale of the urgency of the moment. That energy is led by young people.”
Asked what issue they would choose if they could make one law that would achieve one end and that was guaranteed to pass, MacDonald said she would give everyone a free electric car, a reference to an earlier answer about environmental concerns.
Lee said she would overturn Citizens’ United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and other groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.
“We already have a failing democracy, which means that everything that we do around it has to address that the insane amounts of money that can pour into our election keeps us from having a reflective democracy,” Lee said. She referenced the $100 million that a conservative-funded super PAC pledged to spend defeating her and several other progressive candidates in 2024. “We must get that type of money out of politics.”
Patel did not directly answer the question, instead choosing to respond to Lee’s suggestion that Patel was the candidate who would benefit from the $100 million in super PAC spending.
“My campaign finance reports are going to be public just as everybody else here on this stage,” she said, adding that 65% of her donations were for $250 or less, and roughly 70% were from within the state of Pennsylvania. “We’re very proud of the broad coalition that we’ve built here.”
Last week, Lee’s campaign announced it had raised more than $1 million in the fourth quarter compared to the $310,000 Patel’s campaign said it had raised in the same period, and that 90% of the donations were $250 or less.
Campaign finance reports will be released at the end of the month. The primary election in Pennsylvania is April 23.
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