Summer Lee Has Been a Vocal Israel Critic. Will It Matter in Her PA House Primary?

As a progressive insurgent in her last primary campaign, Summer Lee barely eked out a victory in a Pittsburgh-area congressional race, facing fierce opposition from local Democratic leadership and an onslaught of spending from outside groups.

Two years later, Ms. Lee — now a congresswoman aligned with the left-wing “Squad” in Washington — heads into Tuesday’s primary contest as the dominant front-runner, backed by much of the party establishment even as her criticism of Israel has deeply angered some Jewish constituents.

“It was just the development of Congresswoman Summer Lee,” said Mayor Ed Gainey of Pittsburgh, asked about the biggest difference between the 2022 primary contest and this one. “No one can doubt her influence.”

The Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 12th District seemed primed to become a major test of party attitudes about the Middle East, following the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people in Israel, and the Israeli military response that has devastated Gaza.

Ms. Lee has condemned the Oct. 7 attack. But she is also one of the most vocal critics of Israel in Congress, breaking with much of her party on an array of Israel-related legislation and calling for a cease-fire nine days after the Hamas attack, a position at odds with many Democratic officials at the time.

Yet interviews with more than a dozen voters, party leaders and activists in the Pittsburgh area suggest that the once-expected ideological battle has been significantly limited.

In part, that reflects how politics have changed since October: Amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where local authorities say the death toll has climbed past 30,000, many Democrats have become increasingly critical of the Israeli government’s conduct of the war.

And in part, it is a function of campaign fundamentals.

Ms. Lee did not attract a well-known primary challenger — she is facing Bhavini Patel, a young council member in Edgewood, Pa., whom Ms. Lee has vastly out-raised. National pro-Israel organizations that spent heavily against Ms. Lee last time are now focused on what they see as stronger opportunities elsewhere.

As she has built a record in Washington and established more relationships as a congresswoman, Ms. Lee is also enjoying the powerful benefits of incumbency.

Ms. Lee, the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, is backed by mainstream party leaders including top House Democratic leaders, Pennsylvania’s senators, major labor unions and the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, which previously opposed her.

Ms. Lee also has the support of prominent left-wing lawmakers including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who rallied with Ms. Lee on Sunday.

In Pennsylvania, she and her allies have emphasized local matters, especially her work to secure federal funding for the district.

And on a swing through Pittsburgh, some voters said Ms. Lee struck the right balance between pressing progressive policies and not wading too far into intraparty criticism.

“She’s a good Democrat with the party,” said Doug Croft, 73, who is retired from a career in finance. But, noting that sometimes she pushes “a little from the left,” he added, “I like that combination.”

Ms. Patel, however, is casting Ms. Lee as outside the political mainstream and insufficiently supportive of President Biden.

“It is coming down to the 2024 general election and support for Biden,” Ms. Patel said. “There’s a desire in many ways to see rejection of extremism on both sides.”

Ms. Lee said that “there is no question about where my support will lie,” and that she would “help Joe Biden earn every single vote of this coalition.”

Her allies have noted that Mr. Biden shouted out Ms. Lee, among other Pennsylvania lawmakers, while in the state last week. They argue that her diverse base of support positions her to help Mr. Biden engage voters indicating growing discontentment with him — in particular, young people and voters of color.

“No one has worked harder in Western Pennsylvania to expand the electorate and turn out voters,” said Usamah Andrabi, the spokesman for Justice Democrats, which supports progressive candidates.

But Ms. Lee has clearly broken with Mr. Biden on Middle East policy, alongside a growing number of other Democrats.

Ms. Lee, who wore a kaffiyeh, a scarf associated with Palestinian nationalism, to the State of the Union address, was one of several lawmakers to draw attention for appearing to respond tepidly at times to Mr. Biden’s speech.

That is a subject of advertising from Moderate PAC, a super PAC backing Ms. Patel. It is funded in significant part by Jeff Yass, the billionaire Wall Street financier and Republican megadonor. (Ms. Lee’s allies have sharply criticized Ms. Patel and tied her to Mr. Yass; Ms. Patel said she disavowed the spending.)

The moment caught the attention of Jan Margo Brennan, 74.After Ms. Patel knocked on her door, Ms. Brennan told a reporter that she was bothered by Ms. Lee’s State of the Union posture.

“I’m thinking, ‘Do you really support him?’” she said.

Charlene Turner, 64, had the opposite reaction, saying the scene demonstrated Ms. Lee’s commitment to her convictions.

“She’s keeping it real,” Ms. Turner said.

“I want her to work with him,” Ms. Turner added in an interview in Homewood, a historic Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. “At the same time, I don’t care who the president is. If you’re against something, stand against it.”

Ms. Lee’s early and sustained opposition to the Gaza war impressed some voters, like Aditi Sridhar, 23, a filmmaker.

“Especially initially, all of the deaths that were happening in Gaza, and the health care crisis that’s happening there, there were not a lot of politicians, I think, speaking out,” she said. .”

But Ms. Lee’s approach has troubled some Jewish community leaders and other voters who are often highly politically engaged.

In Squirrel Hill — the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, and the home of the Tree of Life synagogue, believed to be the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history — the pain of Oct. 7 and anxiety about rising antisemitism since were palpable on a recent visit.

And there, the primary feels much more like a competitive race.

A kosher grocery store displayed images of people taken hostage. Some houses had lawn signs showing support for Israel, alongside signs backing Ms. Patel. And in interviews, some denounced Ms. Lee’s position on the war and questioned whether she had shown sufficient empathy to a community shaken by the Oct. 7 attack.

“The Jewish community, specifically in the district, has really been hurt by some of her activities and her votes,” said Rabbi Yitzi Genack, who signed letters to Ms. Lee from Jewish clergy members expressing concerns.

In an interview, Ms. Lee said that “everyone has a right to vote the way that they feel is best” but promised to “be a representative” for all. She argued against treating the war as “the only issue that is important to voters.”

“It’s a shame that there are people who, while this community has been in its grief and it’s been in pain, that they’ve used it as a political opportunity,” she said.

She pointed to meetings she has held in Washington with relatives of those taken hostage to Gaza, and in Pennsylvania with Jewish community leaders and organizations. Ms. Lee also obtained federal dollars to rebuild the Tree of Life synagogue and support a group that helps those affected by the 2018 shooting.

Primary Day falls during Passover, and there have been efforts to encourage observant Jewish voters to cast early ballots. Mr. Genack, who said that as a rabbi he was not endorsing, said he dressed up for Purim as a mailman with a mail-in ballot.

Sam Hens-Greco, the chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said that Ms. Lee was broadly in a strong position.

But, he added, the war “has energized and activated a group, especially within the Jewish community,” including people who have not historically been politically active.

Basya Grossman, 40, an assistant in a local preschool, is one of them, at least on the Democratic side.

“I actually used to be a registered Republican,” said Ms. Grossman, who voted against Ms. Lee. “I switched because of this primary.”

Certainly, Ms. Lee has plenty of support from Jewish voters, too.

“There is this feeling and a portrayal that we all row in the same direction at all times, especially when it comes to things regarding Israel,” said Jonathan Mayo, a Squirrel Hill resident who is active in a “Jews for Summer” group and has close family ties to Israel. “There are a lot of Jews who support what Summer is doing.”

Kate Borger, 65, was grappling with her choice on Thursday while walking in Squirrel Hill.

“We feel so, so incredibly disturbed and horrified by what’s going on in Gaza,” she said.

But Ms. Borger, who is Jewish, said that she had friends “who are also horrified,” but felt that Ms. Lee brushed past the acts of Oct. 7.

That troubled her, too.

“I’m really torn up about it,” she said of the race. “I’m divided within myself.”

By Sunday, Ms. Borger was still conflicted, but said she was inclined to support Ms. Patel.

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