A race for Congress in Pittsburgh could test Democrats who have criticized Israel’s handling of the war

FILE - U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., stands for a portrait overlooking Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, Monday, April 8, 2024. An election later this month in Pittsburgh and some of its suburbs provides an early test of whether the war of Israel with Gaza poses a political threat to progressive Democrats in Congress who have criticized the war.  Lee faces a primary challenge from Bhavini Patel.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

(Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

A race for Congress in Pittsburgh could test Democrats who have criticized Israel’s handling of the war


Marc Levy

April 14, 2024

An election this month in Pittsburgh and some of its suburbs is emerging as an early test of whether Israel’s war with Hamas poses a political threat to progressive Democrats in Congress, who have criticized the handling of the conflict.

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, a first-term lawmaker who has joined the squad, is facing a primary challenge from Bhavini Patel and the war has become a flashpoint in the race.

Patel frames Lee’s criticism of Israel as part of a broader pattern of left-wing politics that is extreme for the district and potentially damaging to Democratic President Biden in a state crucial to his re-election bid against Republican Donald Trump. Lee responds that she helped bring the call for a ceasefire in Gaza more into the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

The war has thrown democratic politics in the United States into turmoil. It divides traditionally progressive groups, including Pittsburgh’s sizable Jewish community, in ways that don’t always fall neatly along ethnic or cultural lines. But it is a particularly serious issue in Lees County, home to the synagogue where a gunman killed 11 congregants in 2018 in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

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The April 23 primaries could shed light on whether the war alone is enough to turn a critical mass of Democrats against Lee.

It’s clearly big enough for a certain group in this district, said Sam Hens-Greco, party chairman in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh. Whether it is large enough for the entire population remains to be seen.

If Lee is defeated, she would be the first Democratic incumbent in Congress to lose a primary this year. Other progressive Democrats, including Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota face the main challengers this summer.

Lee has raised far more money than Patel and has the support of Pennsylvania’s Democratic establishment, including Senator Bob Casey, and a constellation of progressive groups including


Jewish and Islamic organizations.

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Lee, 36, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania, is a Howard University law school graduate and community activist. She began her political career in 2018 with a successful challenge from the left to become an entrenched state lawmaker in the Pittsburgh region.

In this year’s campaign, Lee has promoted herself as a hard-working representative who is committed to her constituents and speaks to marginalized communities on issues in Congress

of inclusive

combat inequality,


climate change and intolerance, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Regarding the war between Israel and Hamas, Lee has condemned Hamas’ attack, but he has also accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza, demanded an end to US military aid to Israel and called for a ceasefire within a few days after the war started like the best. way to break the cycle of violence and build peace.

That set her apart from Biden’s position and that of most Democrats in the House of Representatives, although dozens of others have now joined her in calling for a ceasefire. During Biden’s State of the Union address, Lee wore a kaffiyeh, a checked scarf that has come to symbolize solidarity with the Palestinians.

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Patel, 30, a small-town councilman who worked in the administration of former Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, declared his candidacy a few days before Hamas’s election campaign. 7 attack. Patel, who is Hindu and of Indian descent, has cultivated the Jewish community by opening a campaign office in the Jewish enclave in Squirrel Hill, where he was present after October 2012. 7 vigils and buses of community members to a pro-Israel rally in Washington in November.

Most recently, Patel hammered Lee for joining proponents of the uncommitted campaign encouraging Democrats to protest Biden’s handling of the war.


uncommitted voting in the primaries.

That, Patel suggested, is dangerous.

“I would say that every Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District should be aware that my opponent has been ambiguous about her support for President Biden and has failed to denounce the disengaged movement,” Patel said in an interview . I think this is the issue that is of great concern to Democrats in this district.”

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Lee defended the “disengaged” move, saying it is wrong to discourage people from voting and potentially losing a crucial portion of the electorate that Democrats want to convince to support Biden in November’s presidential election. Biden recognizes that too, Lee said.

Lee said she has met people from all sides of the war, including families of hostages and families of Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza, and that her calls for a ceasefire reflect the district’s majority.

Lee also accused Patel of aligning himself more with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with Biden.

Joe Biden is now becoming more aligned with us, which means that, no, it wasn’t wrong to come out early and come out strong because as we see now, this was always where we needed to come in, Lee said in an interview. . This was always the only way to peace.

For now, the sharpest questions about the war have been largely confined to the debates between Lee and Patel.

The issue has barely appeared on the airwaves, and pro-Israel groups that spent big to defeat Lee in the 2022 Democratic Majority for Israel primaries and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, have not mixed into the race.

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In Pennsylvania, a potential boost for Lee could come from students who, unlike the 2022 primaries, will be on campus this time. At the University of Pittsburgh, the war has had a commanding presence on campus, with most students fighting for a ceasefire, said Will Allison, president of Pitts College Democrats.

The group unanimously supported Lee, despite the war causing some division among members, and the College Democrats campaigned for Lee.

In a possible sign of changing politics around the war, the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, a non-party organization based around Squirrel Hill, voted for Patel after he endorsed Lee in 2022.

Sue Berman Kress, a Jewish supporter of Patel, said she knows a number of Jewish Democrats who will not vote for Lee again. They feel she has failed the Jewish community and that her policies could open the door to a Trump victory and a wave of anti-Semitism.

Those things feel very divisive and in a way that is very scary, Kress said.

Levy writes for the Associated Press.


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