Summer Lee was considered a longshot when she ousted a 20-year incumbent Democrat in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives back in 2018. Now Lee, an avid environmental justice advocate and supporter of a Green New Deal, is testing her mettle again as she attempts to become the first Black woman in Pennsylvania elected to the U.S. Congress.
Lee is the presumed frontrunner in the Democratic primary being held on May 17 for Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 12th Congressional District. The winner will be heavily favored in November to replace Pittsburgh’s longtime congressman U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D), who announced his retirement last year and opened up the historically blue seat for the first time in a quarter century.
With some 30 Democratic incumbents saying they’re leaving Congress this cycle, the party must keep safe seats like Doyle’s if it is to have any chance of holding its narrow majority in the U.S. House and boosting President Biden’s chances of passing meaningful climate legislation during his first term.
The 12th Congressional District race is crowded and getting a lot of attention. The primary has drawn millions of dollars in super PAC spending in the past few weeks. Besides Lee, there are four moderate Democrats in the race: Pitt law professor Jerry Dickinson, attorney Steve Irwin, business owner Will Parker and nonprofit administrator Jeff Woodard.
Lee especially stands out for her progressive stances on climate and environmental justice policies. Specifically, she is the only Democrat in the 12th Congressional District primary who has explicitly called for a ban on fracking—saying that the practice of injecting fluids underground to break apart rocks and release oil and gas is a danger to the climate and to vulnerable populations already overburdened by industrial pollution.
“Our region suffers from some of the poorest air quality in the nation. CEOs get wealthy while our community—especially Black and brown communities—experiences higher rates of asthma, cancer and other diseases,” Lee wrote on her campaign website. “The people in our community have been fighting back against fossil fuel corporations’ fracking proposals for decades, and I am proud to continue to stand with them.”
Fracking has long been a contentious issue in Pennsylvania. While reports have shown the industry’s benefits have in some ways been overblown, fracking still makes up a hefty portion of the state’s economy and has created tens of thousands of jobs, if not more. Pennsylvania is second only to Texas for natural gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And the industry has generated nearly $2 billion in tax revenues for Pennsylvania since 2012, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
That has made fracking a political third rail in Pennsylvania, and even Democratic candidates tend to steer clear of offending the industry for fear of losing support from moderate voters. Case in point: in another contentious Pennsylvania race to replace U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R), the candidates vying for the Democratic endorsement have made a point of accusing each other of not supporting fracking. And the winner of that primary will still face accusations of being anti-fracking from Republicans in the general election.
But Lee’s unwavering opposition to fracking has helped earn her endorsements from prominent progressive leaders and environmental groups. That includes endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the abortion rights advocacy group EMILY’s List, whose April poll found Lee has a commanding 25-point lead in the primary.
Last month, the Sunrise Movement—the grassroots network of outspoken youth climate advocates—also threw its support behind Lee, saying she “knows firsthand why we need bold climate action” and has successfully fought off fracking efforts in her hometown of Braddock.
“She has shown that she is not afraid to stand up to the big polluters and corporate interests that currently control politics in this country, who will use everything at their disposal to block a safe and just transition to a green economy,” Bre Macpherson-Rice, an organizer for the Sunrise Movement’s western Pennsylvania chapter, said in an email. “That’s why Summer Lee will be invaluable in Congress.”
Lee was among several progressive candidates that Sunrise endorsed last month, part of a broader push by the group to elect more candidates to office who have strong climate platforms. Climate activists have been broadly disappointed by Democrats, who have promised to pass sweeping climate reforms in recent years—much of which has failed to pan out.
That includes both of President Biden’s flagship climate proposals, the Clean Electricity Performance Program and the Build Back Better Act, which remain stalled or have been taken off the negotiating table altogether.
Moderate and conservative Democrats—particularly West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—have been blamed for the Biden administration’s inability to pass climate legislation so far. Manchin, who holds a key vote in the 50-50 Senate, has made his fortune from coal and natural gas companies and has been a major obstacle to President Biden’s climate agenda.
That gridlock has, at least in some places, led to a rise in what some people are calling “no-compromise climate candidates,” as a younger generation concerned with how the climate crisis will affect their future seeks to capitalize on the upcoming midterms. The candidates, who range from public school teachers in Kentucky to climate activists in New York, have pledged to reject fossil fuel donations and are calling for immediate legislative action to address global warming.
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That sense of urgency is something that Lee has expressed in her own campaign. “We are facing so many different intersecting crises—our environmental crisis, our labor movement hasn’t grown to capacity, we’re looking at a housing crisis and economic injustice, we’re looking at racial injustice,” Lee told WESA. “We don’t have time anymore to wait, and it’s so important that as new leadership comes in, we seize this opportunity for it to be bold.”
Although air quality in Pittsburgh has improved after the demise of the city’s vaunted steel industry, air pollution in the metro area is among the worst in the country, earning failing grades in two of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air measurement categories and almost failing a third.
The League of Conservation Voters announced earlier this month that it was spending $550,000 nationally on four competitive House races, including Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, describing Lee in an ad as someone who “spent her life organizing for working families, fighting for higher wages and against corporate polluters.”
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection targets census tracts for environmental justice considerations when at least 20 percent of residents live in poverty, or at least 30 percent identify as non-white, a designation which covers 385 areas in Pittsburgh’s home county of Allegheny alone. Studies show that communities of color bear disproportionate harms from pollution and climate change.
A study released by the Rand Corp. in 2020 found that rainfall in Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods, amplified by climate change, could increase extensive overflows from the city’s sewer system. Officials estimated that upgrades could cost anywhere from $100 million to $200 million.