The blue wave in Pennsylvania will be tinged with a different shade of red in 2018, as four Democratic state house candidates – all women – backed by the Democratic Socialists of America won primary races across the state on Tuesday.
On the western front, Summer Lee, an African-American lawyer and community organizer, and activist Sara Innamorato, unseated a pair of longtime Democratic officeholders, cousins Paul and Dom Costa. Both Lee and Innamorato were endorsed by Pittsburgh DSA, one of the organization’s most active outposts.
Back east, another pair of candidates, Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale, won their primaries with the support of Philly DSA. Seale, a first-time candidate and former delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, will now take on incumbent Republican state Rep. Chris Quinn.
DSA is a leftist political organization that has seen its rank-and-file grow to up to 37,000 dues-paying members, from something like 8,000 since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016.
The group has become a political and cultural nerve center for a new generation of mostly young activists and progressive organizers. The high-profile victories in Pennsylvania on Tuesday follow what had been DSA’s banner win in Virginia last year, when Lee Carter, a DSA member and military veteran, ousted the incumbent GOP majority whip in the state’s House of Delegates.
Summer Lee, who supported Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and then worked to organize her community for Hillary Clinton during the general election, joined DSA in November of 2017.
“What they’re leaning toward is what the Democratic party is only giving lip service to,” she told CNN. “This is where we stand, (some Democrats) say, but they won’t run candidates who are unashamed standing there and unashamed of that agenda.”
For all the chatter about ideological clashes within the Democratic Party at the national level, Lee and her campaign manager, Daniel Moraff, chalked up her primary success to picking out the fundamental things and then engaging voters in the region with a vigor they hadn’t seen in some time, with hundreds of volunteers knocking on an estimated 35,000 doors.
If her connections with DSA were questioned, Lee said, her response would be simple, too.
“I would ask, ‘How did capitalism work for you?’” Lee told CNN. “Because I can tell you in my community it’s not working. Capitalism works on the back of my community and communities of color and poor communities across this country. It was built that way and it is working exactly the way it is supposed to.”
The campaign ended up raising around $136,000, with the Sierra Club pitching in with $10,000 and Women for the Future of Pittsburgh giving $5,000. The Pittsburgh DSA PAC donated a few hundred dollars, Moraff said. Lee’s success might be notable for its ideological underpinnings, but that’s not what won her votes.
“The Bernie thread (of politics), which we can also call the DSA thread, is having a kind of tough time nationally, if you look at the congressional primary cycle,” Moraff said. “The establishment candidate is winning more often than not. What I think is most interesting about Summer’s campaign is that it’s essentially a blueprint for how you can run a campaign on a radical platform and reach the demographics it needs to reach.”
That meant setting aside what many on the left perceive as an outsize reliance on data and creating a grassroots campaign that clearly connected public policy with a community’s more intimate struggles.
“I was doing the things in my community that these folks in DSA wanted to spread around,” Lee said of her work as an organizer ahead of the campaign. “We were doing electoral on a local level that people had not seen done.”
Meanwhile, Sara Innamorato, who lives in Pittsburgh, joined DSA in late 2016 as the organization’s ranks began to swell. When she decided to run in District 21, she consulted with local leaders and other civic stapes more closely attuned to the area’s concerns.
DSA would provide a different kind of backing.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to get any institutional support,” Innamorato said. Like Lee, she was challenging an incumbent whose family had deep roots in local politics. “We looked at organizations like the DSA, to which I’m a dues-paying member, and started to have conversations with them. They were one of the first groups to say, yeah, this seems like a race we want to get involved in and put our people behind.”
Innamorato and Lee are both likely to run unopposed in November, meaning the male-dominated state house is – like so many other American institutions under the microscope in the Trump era – finally poised to get a bit more diverse.
“Two years ago the results would have been a lot different and we would have run a very different campaign,” Innamorato said on Wednesday.
“It’s really a good time to be a woman and running for office in 2018.”