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These Democratic Socialist women plan to transform western Pennsylvania

Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee are not your typical politicians. And that's what makes them perfect for Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania's newest State House Representatives, Sara Innamorato (L) and Summer Lee (R), ran against longtime establishment Democrats. And they won. (Photo by Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress and Getty Images; Artwork by Diana Ofosu)
Pennsylvania's newest State House Representatives, Sara Innamorato (L) and Summer Lee (R), ran against longtime establishment Democrats. And they won. (Photo by Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress and Getty Images; Artwork by Diana Ofosu)

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA — When Summer Lee moved back home to North Braddock after graduating from Howard University Law School in 2015, she was suddenly thrust into the same environment she had spent years studying and learning to change.

“I spent my time at law school looking at the cyclical nature of racism. And then just kind of really realizing how that cycle plays out in my own community,” Lee told ThinkProgress. Her homecoming was compounded with news of multiple incidents of police brutality at her alma mater Woodland Hills High School, in which staff and school resource officers punched, tased, and threatened students.

“Our issues at Woodland Hills School District was because of our elected officials, because they would not speak to us, because they didn’t respect us, because they didn’t prioritize the needs of this electorate, because they didn’t prioritize the needs of these children,” said Lee.

Summer Lee (Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress)
Summer Lee (Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress)

The lack of accountability and responsiveness on the part of politicians was ultimately what compelled Lee to run for state representative in 2017.

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“I just really started to think, what would our government look like if we were picking our representatives and it wasn’t the system sending us a representative?” Lee said. “I actually just wanted to basically find more black people to run, women to run. And then there was like, ‘can I really lead people to a place that I’m not willing to go?’”

But neither Lee, nor Sara Innamorato, both of whom are running for the Pennsylvania State House on the Democratic Socialist platform, ever aspired to run for public office. And that is exactly what makes them so perfect for the position.

Sara Innamorato (Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress)
Sara Innamorato (Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress)

Both women were born and raised in the Pittsburgh area — Innamorato in Ross Township, Lee in North Braddock. And both women lived through experiences unique to their communities that ultimately informed their decision to pursue public office.

“I wasn’t supposed to run for office,” said Innamorato, whose working-class family was homeless for a brief period. “You look at where I’m from, my family background … You wouldn’t look at that and be like, ‘that’s a candidate for office.’”

Lee’s perspective is similar. “When I was a kid and they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, saying that I wanted to be a senator or a congressperson or a representative or a governor was never something that I would’ve even thought of,” she said. “Because they were never me.”

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But that changed in May, when Innamorato, 32, and Lee, 30, won their respective primaries against two longtime incumbents, cousins Dom Costa and Paul Costa, delivering a massive blow to establishment Democrats in western Pennsylvania and paving the way for fresher, bolder, and more progressive leadership. Their victories are guaranteed in November, as both women are running unopposed.

Before long, Innamorato and Lee were joined by other Democratic Socialist women across the country — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan — who won their primaries with ease, against all odds. While pundits wrestled over what made Democratic Socialism so appealing to voters, it was clear that a movement had already begun.  

“I was my own worst enemy”

Innamorato and Lee got their start in politics in similar ways. While working in their communities — Innamorato in the nonprofit sector, Lee as an organizer — both women were frustrated with the glaring absence of their elected officials in the community.

“I saw how more and more we’re relying on these small, under-resourced organizations to solve some of the region’s biggest problems,” Innamorato told ThinkProgress. “And you’re like, ‘but where are the elected officials,’ cause these are people who could really be game-changers either through money or policy changing.”

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The void in leadership led her to seek out women to run for public office. Pretty soon, people began asking her whether she would consider running.

“I was like, ‘uh, I’m more of a helper … I don’t have a public policy degree, I don’t have a law degree.’ I always said I don’t have these things and I rarely looked at what I did have to offer,” she said. “I’ve lived here my entire life, I’ve faced the struggles that most people in this district are facing.”

Innamorato said the biggest challenge she had to overcome on the campaign trail was herself.

“I was my own worst enemy. Like, ‘oh, gosh, I don’t have enough, I haven’t done this long enough,’” she said. “I was always coming up with excuses on why I wasn’t good enough.”

Most women, especially women of color, are familiar with such self-doubt, said Lee.

“There are so many women who are worried about stepping up because they’re like, ‘we’re not ready. We don’t feel qualified,’” she said. “What I try to remind them is that, neither was that man. He stepped up knowing he was underqualified, and knowing that he would have the leeway or learning curve to figure it out on the job.”

“With campaigning, I guess the difference is what we traditionally believe to be the qualifications for office are kind of absurd,” she added. “What exactly are they? Whiteness, maleness, and age? What I try to tell people is that you are actually perfectly suited to this.”

The initial fears and hesitation that began their campaigns quickly dissipated, however, as the women began reaching out to each other, as well as other like-minded candidates, for support, forming a small community of first-time women candidates who shared resources across their campaigns, from volunteers to donors.

Summer Lee yard signs in the Regent Square neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress)
Summer Lee yard signs in the Regent Square neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Elham Khatami/ThinkProgress)

“It made literally all of the difference,” Lee said. “There was an extra level of positivity coming from Sara and [Elizabeth] Fiedler and Lindsey Williams and other women who were running. Creating that little village of first-time candidates who all want to do the same thing, who understand that we’re stronger, we go further if we’re doing this as a team.”

The strategy worked. Innamorato and Lee were much more prepared and much more engaged with their communities than the Costas leading up to the primaries.

“Neither of these men had really run a campaign before. They never had a challenger. So they never had to go to their communities and ask people what they care about and say, ‘Here’s what I believe, here’s my vision for the state and for this district,’” said Innamorato. “We were able to offer that.”

It’s not left versus right. It’s right versus wrong.

When Innamorato was 23, she lost her father to opioid addiction. Throughout her life, she watched as her father bounced from rehab to rehab, but was never provided with a pathway out of addiction.

“And so, my mom and my sister and I ended up leaving him … And we moved around,” she said, adding that “even though I was homeless and food insecure, we never went hungry and we never went without a roof over our heads because people were willing to take us in. I just always remember that — how much community and social capital matters and also how easily people can fall through the cracks.”

Innamorato’s family learned of her father’s death when they received a phone call that his body was found after he had gone missing.

“I don’t want a kid to ever get a phone call like I did and I know it happens everyday,” she said. “We always see the body count rise when it comes to heroin. No one has come up with a comprehensive solution, I think, because we’re not addressing the root causes.”

The root cause, Innamorato added, is “concentration of poverty, no investment in certain communities, lack of access to good paying jobs.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) earlier this year declared a disaster emergency with regard to the opioid crisis, but little has changed in the way of concrete solutions.

“When [my father] died, I was extremely mad. I was mad at my father for choosing drugs over me. And it took me a long time to realize it was society,” said Innamorato. “It’s the stigma of drug addiction that we have that it’s something you should keep to yourself.”

Lee, too, has come face-to-face with problems that continue to plague her largely poor and black community — from police brutality to environmental racism.

In June, 17-year-old Woodland Hills High School student Antwon Rose, Jr. was fatally shot three times in the back by an East Pittsburgh police officer, as he was running away. The incident sparked outrage throughout the Pittsburgh area, as residents grappled with losing one of their own to police violence.

A woman holds a rose and a sign for Antwon Rose as she joins more than 200 people gathered for a rally to protest the fatal shooting of Rose at the Allegheny County Courthouse on June 21, 2018 in Pittsburgh.  (Credit: Justin Merriman/Getty Images)
A woman holds a rose and a sign for Antwon Rose as she joins more than 200 people gathered for a rally to protest the fatal shooting of Rose at the Allegheny County Courthouse on June 21, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Credit: Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

“When we’re looking at police brutality, particularly when we’re looking at Antwon, we’re looking at a community, a district that has been over-policed,” Lee said. “At a school district where a police officer has actually been brutalizing our children. And then we wonder how kids look at police officers, why a kid might run from a police officer, why a kid might be afraid to interact with a police officer.”

But growing up in a poor, black community, Rose, like many black children, was likely doomed from the start, Lee said, facing roadblocks in the form of education inequality, pollution, and other environmental hazards.

“When you look at the placement of factories, steel mills, environmental polluters — these things are overwhelmingly in communities of color. Black children are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning… from asthma,” Lee said. “We’re just sick and dying and have no idea.”

The Edgar Thomson Steel Works glows in the night in Braddock, Pennsylvania.The mill has been active since 1872. (Credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Edgar Thomson Steel Works glows in the night in Braddock, Pennsylvania.The mill has been active since 1872. (Credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

While mainstream Pittsburgh politicians like Mayor Bill Peduto (D) focus on trying to bring companies like Amazon to the “most livable city,” Innamorato and Lee worry that few recognize the dangers that capitalism can pose to poor communities and communities of color.

“You see this attention being paid on Pittsburgh, with our universities, technology, and medicine, but you look around and you see these neighborhoods, you’re like, ‘this is not the most livable city for a lot of people,’” said Innamorato.

“What I understand very well is capitalism is inextricably linked to racism,” Lee said. “The commonality between all of us [women Democratic Socialist candidates] is that we… were living out the issues of race and gender and income inequality. And we were victims of that. We were folk who were at the bad end of capitalism.”

Lee added that she thinks it’s both funny and frustrating when people question Democratic Socialism for being too radical and dangerously leftist.

“Everytime we have an interview about socialism, it’s so funny because they’ll say, ‘yeah, but Cuba, but Venezuela,’ and I’m like, ‘but Detroit, but Flint, but Washington, D.C., but Pittsburgh now.’ I’m like, ‘why don’t you do the same thing for capitalism?’ Why aren’t we as critical of the systems that oppress us here?”

There is nothing leftist about Democratic Socialism, Lee said. It’s simply common sense.

“What is left about education? What is leftist about medical care? What is leftist about a living wage?” she said. “That also is a brainwashing. To confine politics to a left versus right when I really believe it’s about a right versus wrong.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated Innamorato’s age when her father died. She was 23.