A neck-and-neck Democratic primary race for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District has yielded a probable winner: Summer Lee, the 34-year-old state representative who ran on a progressive platform of environmental, social, and economic justice. Lee’s opponent, the more moderate but still left-of-center Pittsburgh-based attorney Steve Irwin, ran an aggressive, well-funded campaign that frequently criticized Lee for seeking to “dismantle the Democratic party.” Lee’s campaign has declared victory as she outpaces Irwin by just a few hundred votes. But as there are a few hundred left to count due to voting machine reporting delays, Irwin has not yet conceded.
Lee’s success in the primary is remarkable in that she supports an outright fracking ban, a rare position for a politician seeking to represent Pennsylvanians. In the primary for one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats, Democratic candidates Conor Lamb and John Fetterman — the latter of whom has enjoyed significant media attention as an unconventional, progressive prospect — both refused to endorse a fracking ban. Lee’s opponent Irwin received enthusiastic support from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has eagerly pushed fracking development in the region.
Western Pennsylvania, with its hallowed history as a center of industry and fossil fuel extraction, has long been presumed a stronghold of fracking supporters. But the reality on the ground is more complex. It would be easy to assume that the city of Pittsburgh proper, whose demographics have shifted considerably from aging steel town to something of a destination for educated young professionals, is a mighty center of anti-fossil fuel progressives in a red sea of roughnecks. But that still fails to capture the nuance of the situation. Multigenerational residents of old steel and coal towns have had to weigh the economic benefits of fossil fuel-based industry against its devastating pollution that sticks around for far longer, and many have had enough.
The district that Lee would represent in Congress includes much of the Monongahela Valley, or the Mon Valley as it is called locally. This is a chain of longstanding mill towns, a few of which still produce steel or process the raw materials to do so, that runs along the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh. Many of these towns are economically depressed and struggle with significant pollution issues due to centuries of industrial malfeasance that continues to this day.
Lee has used her position as state representative to call attention to the ongoing environmental justice issues in this corner of Western Pennsylvania, emphasizing the need for improving air quality in the Mon Valley due to high rates of asthma in children and particularly poor health outcomes for Black residents. To that end, she has spoken out against U.S. Steel’s continuing violation of air quality standards in the town of Clairton, and fought against the company’s plans to install a fracking well on the site of its steel plant in her hometown of North Braddock. In the state legislature, she sponsored a bill that would impose stronger fines and penalties on polluting facilities. And indeed, she made environmental justice an explicit part of her Congressional campaign platform.
Should Lee win the November election against Republican nominee Mike Doyle (who has the same name as the exiting Congressman whose seat they are competing for), as she is expected to, she would join an expanding cohort of progressive, young women of color in the House.