What It Means To Be A Progressive Candidate For Congress-- Guest Post By Summer Lee (D-PA)
When I first began to organize around electoral politics, and then ultimately run myself-- I never consciously decided to do it all as a progressive. For me, my lived experiences meant there was no other way my politics could be. My progressivism wasn’t about a brand, or theory, or the smartest policy paper. It was about the relentless cyclical inequality I saw everywhere in the home region that raised me and informed my politics. It was about what I knew it would take to make real changes in my own life and the lives of people and communities I love.
Growing up in North Braddock and Swissvale, a Black woman in a poor and working class community, I saw firsthand the impacts of environmental racism, underfunded public schools, low wages, and inadequate healthcare and housing. My home district is the Mon Valley, the heart of Steel Country, the region right outside Pittsburgh that the country depended on during industrialization. The steel that drove this country’s industrial revolution is the same that created generations of pollution and illness in our community. On any given day, we have some of the worst air quality in the nation, with the asthma and cancer rates to show for it. It’s also the place where some of America’s most important battles for workers’ rights, unions, and organized labor were fought, and these struggles, too, are ongoing to this day.
Yet despite this history and the challenges and opportunities that came with it, our community had rarely been engaged in our local political process.
In my time in office, I’ve seen up close just how much corporate politicians rely on low voter turnout and engagement from communities like ours to maintain the status quo. This status quo is overwhelmingly affluent, conservative-leaning, and white, and time and time again, it benefits a wealthy handful of insiders while leaving the rest of us-- especially Black, brown, and working class and marginalized folks-- behind. What’s worse is, this status quo politics tells the vast majority of voters of all backgrounds that the things we urgently want and need are impossible. It determines what candidates are seen as “electable,” what races are “strategic,” and what policy changes are “reasonable.” The message we got was clear-- that politics weren’t meant for people who looked or lived like us, and never would be.
But I’ve also always known in my bones that it doesn’t have to be this way-- and our movement here has been proving it for many cycles now.
When in 2017, school administrators and police officers had committed repeated incidents of violence against students at the Woodland Hills School District where I graduated, we organized, we packed community meetings, and eventually ran a successful initiative to transform the school board. Later, when fossil fuel company execs proposed a new dangerous fracking project, our community came together and stopped it in its tracks.
And in 2018, when I decided to throw my hat in the ring to run for State House, taking on an entrenched 20-year incumbent, when no Black woman had ever been elected to state legislature in Western Pennsylvania before, I knew we’d need to envision a different kind of progressive, people-powered politics.
That meant centering a broad, multiracial, multigenerational coalition-- the Black, Brown, and working class voters, the progressive low-turnout white voters, and young voters who are so often deprioritized in traditional campaign models, but who’ve formed the heart of Democratic victories up and downballot for many cycles now.
It meant investing early and consistently in rigorous conversation-based organizing, to listen deeply to voters on the phones, doors, and living rooms across the district-- not to shame them, not with just a transactional canvass in the final push, or a quick robocall, but to build a leader-filled campaign able to welcome folks into the process at scale.
It meant running explicitly on the overwhelmingly popular, unifying, energizing ideas that would actually address the real problems we’re facing, even ones that a small handful told us were impossible. We ran on unapologetically on racial justice, environmental justice and ending fracking, on Medicare for All, on just, welcoming, inclusive policies for immigrant and refugees, on police accountability and fighting mass incarceration, on unions and good wages, workers’ rights, and sustainable jobs, and other people-centered policies and ideas that we know can win everywhere.
And it worked. We doubled voter turnout and unseated a 20-year incumbent for a surprise victory with over 67% of the vote. A quarter of our supporters were folks participating in a midterm primary for the first time. In my next race, even though I was the incumbent, one county Democratic committee refused to endorse - but we won with 77% anyway. This majority-white, majority-suburban district that includes the only Trump-voting ward in Pittsburgh has repeatedly chosen me, a young, working class, progressive community organizer and advocate to be their representative.
This is progressivism in practice, and our movement hasn’t stopped since.
Since my first election, I co-founded UNITE, a grassroots PAC working to fill the gap and address barriers to bold progressive leaders in communities running and winning in local elections. We’ve worked in coalition with campaigns, movement organizations and advocacy groups to reach new voters across the county and expand the electorate. We’ve helped elect an inspiring wave of progressives to our county council, school, state legislature, magistrates, and judicial seats -- including the recent election of Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor and a historic justice slate of judges, where progressive Black women became the highest vote getters on the Court of Common Pleas.
We’ve seen how powerful it can be when working and marginalized folks are centered in our political movements and calculus- when they’re truly empowered and equipped with the tools to create their own politics, not just consume the politics of the corporate politicians who have controlled our religion for so long. Our work in western Pennsylvania has proven that not only can we expect and get more from our elected leaders, we can better define what it means to truly be a progressive.
With an open seat for the first time in 26 years, there are sure to be many folks vying for the chance to represent Pennsylvania’s new 18th Congressional District. Many folks will espouse progressive policies or labels in that process. With a D+13 Cook Rating, this is one of the more Democratic seats in the country, and likely to remain as or more so upon redistricting-- this is a race to determine what future of the Democratic Party will be, and what progressivism really means in this moment. We’re doing this in the midst of tremendously high stakes - as we face an ongoing pandemic, ever-increasing economic inequality, a reckoning around rising white supremacist fascism, and a looming climate crisis.
Here’s what I’ve learned over these past few years: If we are going to win the massive systemic change we need in our society, being progressive can’t be just about your policies, but how you do your politics.
True systemic change will never come from a few or even many elected officials-- progressive or not-- alone. The type of change that liberates and advances society can only come from mass movements of the people-- a poor and working class, multi-racial and multi-generational coalition ready to win power together. So it has been true all throughout history from abolition to women’s suffrage, to workers’ right to civil and voting rights, only when the people, organized and wielding their power to demand progress has congress ever moved to enact any change we need.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s no role for progressive elected officials - I’m running to be one! What I mean is: now is a time to build movements, not monuments. We need to invest in truly progressive leadership at every level now more than ever, from community leaders to voters, to candidates, to campaigners and movement organizations.
Of course, this is about policy-- as a baseline, we should expect all our candidates to champion what we know are popular, working class centered policies that have been elevated by the progressive electoral movement-- Green New Deal, Medicare for All, racial justice, a living wage, unions and workers’ rights.
But policy is only the beginning, and not enough on it’s own. The greatest barrier to achieving liberation and progressive change is the politics of old, that is exclusive and thrives in the dark, where a tiny handful of “experts” are able to disempower and disenfranchise leaders who deserve accountability, cogoverning, and decision-making input over the laws that impact our lives.
Every campaign for elected office is an opportunity to shun me-centered campaigns, and embrace and advance we-centered movements that use their capacity to build power for all poor and working class and marginalized people.
We don’t need folks in office who will govern like they’re the smartest person in the room. Surely, we have enough of those types of folks already. What we need are folks who are smart enough to understand that we need to build, empower, and co-govern with our most impacted and vulnerable constituents and communities. Folks who understand the need to seek, center, and respect the perspectives and expertise of our constituents who are least likely to be invited into fancy rooms and curated tables of power as much if not far more than we do the colleagues, lobbyists and corporations led by folks with purchased titles and letters. We need folks in office who are from among them, and share the urgency of communities that can’t wait for investments in the solutions and infrastructure that our government not only can provide, but owes its marginalized and working class people.
That’s what we’re building here in Western Pennsylvania, where we can not only make history by sending the first Black woman to Congress from Pennsylvania, and not only fight for racial, economic, and environmental justice with the urgency and courage working people deserve, and win this newly open Democratic seat in a pivotal election year.
We can build a more reflective democracy, rooted in a truly progressive politics and real multigenerational, multiracial power.
I can’t wait to do that with you, and I hope you’ll join us.