‘Our words are not matching our actions’: Summer Lee critiques Democratic party during Pitt visit


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Rep. Summer Lee, right, speaks to students gathered in a Barco Law building classroom on Thursday evening.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

Summer Lee may be running for Congress as a Democrat this November, but that won’t stop her from pointing out what she sees as the party’s flaws. 

“As a party, we can’t serve two masters,” Lee said. “We can’t serve corporate interests and the interests of incumbency at all costs, and also serve the interests of marginalized people and working class people. So the need to pick one or the other right now is the big tension that we’re experiencing.”

Pitt College Democrats and Pitt Law Democrats hosted Lee to discuss her campaign and the current state of Pennsylvania politics in the Barco Law Building on Thursday evening. Lee spoke to a group of roughly three dozen attendees about her campaign and the importance of the youth vote, before opening the floor to questions. 

Lee currently represents the 34th legislative district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and is the Democratic nominee for the state’s 12th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. She will face off against Republican nominee Mike Doyle — not to be confused with Democrat Mike Doyle, who retires this year — in the Nov. 8 general election. If she defeats Doyle, Lee will become the first Black woman elected to Congress in Pennsylvania history. 

The results of November’s elections — especially the race for governor — are crucial for a variety of issues, according to Lee. She said if the Democratic party loses the governor seat, labor rights, voting rights and especially abortion rights may be at risk. 

“We [Pittsburgh] are the closest point of contact for people seeking abortion care for … a three state radius,” Lee said. “We have folks who have to come here from Ohio and West Virginia because they have no access in their state, and if we don’t win in November, then we risk losing that for this entire region.”

Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

During the Q&A session, Ethan Markon, a junior film and political science major, asked Lee why she is running in the Democratic party after it “didn’t respect” other Black progressive women such as Nina Turner. In response, Lee said disrespect of Black women isn’t limited to politics.

“The reality is, is that as a Black woman in this country, I’m gon’ find disrespect everywhere I go,” Lee said. “It’s not limited to a political party, it’s not limited to colleges or institutions. Black women are disrespected wherever we go. We build space anyways, and we continue to leave spaces better than when we got them.”

Lee said she is running as a Democrat because the party is most aligned with her values and goals as a representative, and will empower her to make changes within an imperfect system. 

“We use whatever institution, whatever apparatus that we have to empower working-class people, to empower Black and brown people,” Lee said. “I’m a Democrat right now [first] because it aligns most with my community’s needs and aligns most with my needs, but also because we can’t afford to wait around for the perfect system because some of us don’t have that luxury.”

Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Markon said while he supports Lee’s progressive values and her candidacy, he is disappointed because he anticipates that the Democratic party will treat her poorly.

“I support everything that she stands for, but at the same time it’s just sort of disappointing to see that she’s gonna be in this organization that’s just gonna like, kick her [out],” Markon said. 

In addition to her criticisms about prioritizing corporate and incumbent interests over the electorate, Lee also said the party lacks commitment to campaign finance reform and does not invest enough in Black women candidates. However, her criticism of the Republican party was even stronger. 

“The Democratic party is flawed, as is — obviously — the Republican party, which I’m not gonna call flawed, I’m gonna say that that is a party that should not exist,” Lee said. “I will not legitimize, you know, a party of insurrection, a party of white nationalism.”

Amanda Thornton, president of the Pitt College Democrats, said she agrees with Lee’s critical comments about the Democratic party and hopes for a more progressive future for Democrats. 

“They’re [the criticisms] very valid and I just think we have a lot of work to do, but we’ll eventually get there,” Thornton, a junior political science major, said. “I would like to have a more progressive party or just more — a party system that represents people more equally and fairly.” 

While she has caught some heat — particularly during the primary election — for criticizing the Democratic party, Lee said it’s important to continue holding the party accountable even when it gets difficult. 

“Our words are not matching our actions,” Lee said. “Calling our party on that takes a bit of courage, right, because it’s easier sometimes to talk about your enemy than it is to talk about your family.”