Pitt law professor campaigns against longtime incumbent Rep. Mike Doyle


Image via University of Pittsburgh

Pitt law professor Jerry Dickinson is running against Rep. Michael Doyle, D-Pa., in the Democratic primary election.

By Priya Ray, For The Pitt News

Gerald “Jerry” Dickinson says he’s fought for affordable housing for most of his life.

The Pitt law professor and congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 18th district grew up in a diverse foster home with 11 other children, which gave him what he calls a “unique experience” with race. When he started his career in law, Dickinson knew he wanted to help provide homes for people of all backgrounds.

“It gives you a different perspective, and you see the world differently from others who didn’t grow up in a quite as diverse environment,” Dickinson said.

The housing issue is also one of the policies at the heart of Dickinson’s decision to run against longtime incumbent Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., in the 2020 Democratic primary, to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th district.

Along with affordable housing, Dickinson’s platform involves workers’ rights, economic mobility and criminal justice reformation, among other social issues.

Dickinson said he’s determined to make headway in Congress if elected to represent the 18th district, which spans parts of western Pennsylvania, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh — Dickinson’s hometown and current place of residence. The primary election will occur on April 28, 2020, and the general election will occur on Nov. 3, 2020. No candidates have filed to run in the Republican primary.

Dickinson is a consistent and vocal critic of the Trump administration, and has published pieces on the legality of Trump’s border wall plans in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Hill. He wants to be a new voice in Congress to bring change to Washington, he said.

“This calls for a generational change — a transition in leadership,” Dickinson said. “It takes an advocate, an ally, a fighter, to go to Congress and articulate a vision with a loud voice and be a leader in major issues.”

Dickinson started his law career defending the impoverished and evicted in Harlem, New York. Later, he joined the elite Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith LLP as a partner, where he advocated for the rights of tenants in Pittsburgh through his own pro-bono initiative, the Housing Rights Project.

After his time at Reed Smith, Dickinson went to Johannesburg, South Africa, as a Fulbright Scholar where he spent a year working alongside South African lawyers to defend underprivileged families evicted from their homes.

Dickinson’s efforts to defend those who could not defend themselves mirror his plans on the congressional level, he said — and they’re central to his campaign to oust Doyle.

Doyle, one of the more moderate Democrats serving in Congress, has been in office since 1994 and has rarely faced serious challengers. Although once a Republican, Doyle was elected to serve the 18th congressional district of Pennsylvania as a Democrat. He is pro-choice, despite refusing to support federal funding for abortion except in extreme cases, supports LGBT rights, immigration reform and has fought firearm legislation.

Dickinson, a self-identified “progressive,” isn’t pleased with Doyle’s record. Dickinson said Doyle lacks urgency in his longtime role and isn’t doing enough to make a change in Congress as a Democrat. Dickinson calls him “passively progressive,” describing him as a relatively lackadaisical and nonthreatening figure in the face of what many say is a divisive era for the political spectrum.

“We have a constitutional crisis down in D.C.,” Dickinson said. “Democratic institutions are being destroyed. The rule of law is being flouted. That’s a major issue and that’s unprecedented — what we’re dealing with today.”

What separates Dickinson from his competitor, he said, is his legal experience and firsthand familiarity with the law.

“As a lawyer, you have the ability to take your skill sets and your ability to think through problems and solve them,” Dickinson said. “Law to me is a vehicle to make social and political change.”

Dickinson has proposed a modified framework of the “One-Strike Rule,” for example, which evicts residents from their homes if either they or their affiliates are involved in illegal activity — a policy which Dickinson said disproportionately affects African American and Latino communities. Dickinson’s proposed compromise grants the courts more power in overturning eviction decisions and requires authorities to present more evidence of illegal activity prior to conviction.

When asked about Dickinson’s candidacy, Doyle’s office said his current focus is on Congressional duties rather than his re-election campaign.

“Currently, I’m focused on my official duties as Pitt’s Congressman — working to halt climate change, restore net neutrality, reduce the skyrocketing cost of higher education and create opportunities for Pitt grads when they enter the workforce,” Doyle said. “I will be running for re-election in 2020, and I look forward to a vigorous campaign at that point.”

Dickinson announced his candidacy in April, raising more than $100,000 over the following three months, and his campaign is community-funded — meaning Dickinson doesn’t accept PAC money.

Danielle Floyd, a first-year economics major at Pitt, said she approved of Dickinson’s efforts, and plans to vote for him in the primary.

“Although Doyle when he was initially elected was very progressive in the policies he implemented, such as gun control and the green movement, he has become benevolent in his position and has failed to implement policy reflecting today’s current issues in his district,” Floyd said.

Floyd said she believes Doyle has only won re-election in recent years because he didn’t face a strong Democratic competitor like Dickinson.

“Personally, I think Dickinson has a real shot of winning the election,” Floyd said. “[His] modern and progressive campaign strategy will appeal to the 18th district.”