Two Socialists in Pennsylvania Just Won Victories Democrats Can’t Ignore

Statehouse wins highlight the Democratic Socialists of America’s growing electoral power.

A red sky in Pittsburgh.Sean Pavone/iStock

Update, May 15, 9:45 p.m.: Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, both members of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, have defeated Dom and Paul Costa, both incumbent state representatives, in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary. No Republican candidate has filed to run in either district. Rep. Dom Costa, defeated by Innamorato, mounted a late write-in bid for the GOP’s ballot line. It is unclear both whether it was successful, and if it was, what his intentions are for the November general election.

Update, May 15, 10:35 p.m.: With 99 percent of precincts reporting, it appears that Dom Costa’s attempt to obtain the GOP ballot line fell short by about two dozen votes. Innamorato finishes with 5,757 votes, nearly 65 percent of votes cast. Summer Lee won with 6,655 votes, or almost 68 percent of votes cast. 

Dom Costa was first elected to Pennsylvania’s Statehouse nearly a decade ago. Paul Costa joined the same body 10 years earlier. On Tuesday, the distant cousins—both baby boomers and members of one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent political families—will face the electoral challenge of their lifetime. Democratic primary voters are heading to the polls to decide whether to send the two Costas back to Harrisburg or replace them with two millennial women who are dues-paying members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Since it was founded in 1982, the Democratic Socialists of America has played virtually no role in the country’s elections. That’s begun to change, fueled by the organization’s 2016 endorsement of Bernie Sanders and a growth spurt led by the activists and organizers he inspired. In Pittsburgh, the local DSA chapter is 500 members strong and hosts Marxist reading groups, organizes against controversial anti-abortion pregnancy centers, and works to reduce police stops by fixing residents’ brake lights. But it’s their efforts to elect socialists to office that have grabbed local headlines and put mainline politicos on notice—providing a template for their comrades across the country who, like Sanders, aim to build left-wing power by remaking the Democratic Party. On Tuesday, the revitalized DSA, whose nationwide electoral successes have so far mostly been confined to a few dozen small municipal offices and school board seats, could notch its biggest wins yet in this Rust Belt city that’s long been defined by machine politics.

“There’s a lot of fear in the establishment wing of the party, because this is a movement they cannot control,” says Jim Burn, a former chair of Allegheny County’s Democratic committee who went on to run the state party until resigning in 2015. “The fearmongers on the other side are taking a page from the Trump playbook and trying to bash them and label them, because they see their power slipping away.”

The Costa cousins represent deeply blue districts in a city where winning the Democratic nomination is often tantamount to winning the general election. Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee are running primary campaigns against them that are anything but quixotic. Both challengers have aired television ads and garnered support from a handful of prominent local officials. Both have notched endorsements from the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood. Lee has outraised her opponent, Paul Costa, and Innamorato has kept pace with Dom Costa. The districts are small—each holds 60,000 people—and the campaigns expect to be able to win each primary with just about 3,500 votes. Volunteers, including a hefty portion of DSA members, have knocked and canvassed tens of thousands of doors.

If recent history is any guide, the Costas, who did not respond to requests for comment, should be worried. Another cousin, Ron Costa, who served as an elected county magistrate judge for 24 years, was defeated last November by lawyer Mik Pappas, who had the endorsement and field support of the DSA. The other DSA-backed candidate on the ballot that day, Anita Prizio, an engine parts dealer and 2016 Bernie Sanders convention delegate, unseated a Republican county council member who represents portions of Dom Costa’s district.

“We don’t want to count our eggs before they hatch,” says Arielle Cohen, the co-chair of Pittsburgh’s DSA local. “But it is exciting. I cannot wait until late in the night on May 15.”

Innamorato, Dom Costa’s 32-year-old challenger, grew up in Ross Township, in the northern suburban portion of the 21st District, before her family found out her father had developed an opioid problem after being prescribed painkillers following a car accident. Her mother and sister bounced around several homes in the district, before Sara moved across the Allegheny River into the city to attend the University of Pittsburgh. After college, she settled into a $250-a-month room in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood on the river’s southern banks that makes up the densely populated urban core of the 21st District. Then transitioning, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put it, into the post-industrial city’s “hipster haven,” the neighborhood is now home to countless galleries, microbreweries, art walks, tattoo parlors, tiled-walled restaurants, and skinny jeans.

“It was an affordable, creative place to be. There was all this energy around the arts, and that’s where I felt my first sense of responsibility to place and community,” Innamorato, who sports a nose ring and a slightly asymmetric haircut, recalled during an interview in her campaign office.

Innamorato entered an Apple retail management program—her campaign manager is a former Apple store colleague—and became active with neighborhood organizations focused on housing. Eventually she transitioned into nonprofit work, founding a consulting firm that provides communications and other services to local governments, charities, and activist organizations.

Innamorato was first seriously drawn to electoral politics—and eventually to the Democratic Socialists of America—by Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. While taking part in a women’s leadership fellowship program, she helped launch a podcast, She Runs Southwest PA, where female political figures from across the region discussed challenges they faced building their careers. “Women want to check all the boxes before we do something,” she says. “And when it’s really hard to find what boxes need to be checked to run, there’s an opaqueness and an unease.”

The man she’s challenging, Dom Costa, was first elected to the Statehouse in 2008 and is well known for his career in law enforcement, which culminated in 2006 with a nine-month stint as Pittsburgh’s chief of police. In 1997, Costa was formally reprimanded for his role in an incident in which fumes escaped from an abandoned house that SWAT team members were using for tear gas training, sending at least 17 residents of a predominately African American neighborhood to hospitals and sparking a federal civil rights suit. In 2002, Costa and another officer were shot in the line of duty following an armed standoff. An internal review found that his actions on the scene had violated 10 department regulations, and it recommended a 10-day suspension. He retired from the force on medical leave before any formal disciplinary action took place; parts of the bullet are still in his neck today.

In 2008, in what a Post-Gazette editorial termed a win for “the old boys’ club,” Costa won the Democratic nomination for a Statehouse bid, campaigning on a pledge to bring eight-year term limits to Harrisburg. “They knew the Costa name is a good name,” he boasted after his victory. He’s never faced a serious challenger since.

In early 2017, less than a year after Sanders carried the district in Pennsylvania’s presidential primary, Costa was listed as a co-sponsor of a bill that would have withheld funds from universities that had declared themselves sanctuary campuses—that is, schools that had committed not to cooperate with immigration enforcement efforts that might target students. Immigrant rights activists rallied outside of his district office, while others, including Innamorato, gathered signatures urging him to change his position. Costa quickly said he’d made a mistake while navigating the Legislature’s computerized bill tracking system, inadvertently causing him to sign on to the legislation. Activists were suspicious; just the year before, Costa had co-sponsored and voted for a bill that would have stripped state funding from Pennsylvania sanctuary cities.

The demonstrations, along with Costa’s votes to ban abortions after 20 weeks and to preempt local gun control measures, prompted “a coming to terms,” Innamorato said. (In 2009, Costa appeared at a Statehouse National Rifle Association rally beside the NRA’s president.)

“You have someone whose values are very different given where the district has gone in the last 10 years. These seats belong to the people—why not find a progressive woman to run as a Democrat in this race?” Innamorato recalls thinking. She began talking with other, mostly older, women in the district, encouraging them to mount a challenge, before being convinced to run herself. “There’s an irony there,” she says. “I’m no different. I wanted to check all the boxes.”

As the campaign wore on, Costa claimed he was too busy to take part in a debate on any of the five dates proposed by the League of Women Voters. Last week, Costa sent postcards to thousands of his Republican constituents, asking they write in his name on the GOP ballot. If enough do, he could ensure a place in the November election, even if he loses his party’s primary Tuesday.

Farther east, Summer Lee, a 2015 graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, is taking on moderate Rep. Paul Costa. The son of a former county treasurer, Paul Costa was first elected in 1998; his brother Jay holds an overlapping state Senate seat. The 34th District’s population is nearly a quarter African American, and it’s home to some of Allegheny County’s poorest communities.

I joined Lee on a bright spring day as she knocked doors in Swissvale, one of a dozen towns that make up the district along with parts of Pittsburgh. “I’m not an introvert, but I’m not exactly an extrovert either,” she said.

Taking care to identify herself as a graduate of nearby Woodland Hills High School, Lee was warmly received by a union member who worked three jobs and shared a home with his mother, and by an older couple who first heard about the campaign when Lee’s mother buttonholed them at the cellphone store where she works. Walking along a brick-paved street, Lee spotted a familiar last name on her canvass sheet: Costa. She decided not to knock.

Swissvale is up a steep hill from Lee’s campaign headquarters on the gritty main strip of Braddock, a rusted industrial town where nearly half its 2,600 residents live in poverty. Dan Moraff, Lee’s campaign manager, showed me around the office, an old hair salon with low ceilings that’s cluttered with yard signs and plastered with brightly colored signup sheets. In March 2017, Moraff wrote a piece for In These Times, a Chicago-based left-wing magazine, with a simple headline—”Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries”—in which he argued that the DSA ought to build power by taking advantage of primaries’ “low barrier to entry.”

He gestured toward a map and explained how the campaign had looked to the results of the 2008 Obama-Clinton primary (the future president narrowly lost) as a yardstick reflective of the last time a serious black challenger ran in the district. The winner on Tuesday is expected to be unopposed in the general election. If Lee triumphs, she stands to become the first African American woman ever elected to state or federal office in Western Pennsylvania.

In law school, Lee interned at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she helped research litigation targets and cases. She was particularly intrigued by issues of educational inequality—disparate punishment, corporal punishment, desegregation. “I looked up Woodland Hills, and the data was worse than the cases I was working on,” Lee recalls.

Lee moved back in with her mother in North Braddock, worked in the district on Hillary Clinton’s general election field staff, and did a stint organizing for a campaign pushing a $15-per-hour minimum wage. In May 2017, videotapes surfaced showing a Woodland Hills school resource officer roughing up African American students. Lee became a key part of a hastily launched community campaign to run young women of color for write-in positions on the school board.

“The community came out, they were at school board meetings, they protested, we screamed from the top of the mountain that we did not want our schools to go in this direction anymore. And our elected officials…they just ignored us,” Lee says. The pressure did contribute to the establishment of a school district commission charged with reviewing disciplinary procedures, to which Lee was appointed.

“The black community—we see it that politics is corrupt,” Lee says. “It doesn’t work for us. No matter whether it is a Democrat or a Republican, we still have this capitalist system that just does not work.”

Pittsburgh’s DSA group is one of the first chapters in the country to have launched a political action committee, which makes it easier for members to fundraise, make buttons, print campaign literature, and collect canvassing data for future use.

“Pittsburgh is a good place for this sort of thing,” says G.L. Johnson, the PAC’s chair. “There are lots of small local offices. The state legislative districts are some of the smallest in the country.”

Jamin Bogi, the PAC’s vice chair, talked me through his political awakening at a March potluck featuring Lee and Innamorato, which happened to be the PAC’s first official event. Bogi would have described himself as a couch-sitting Colbert Report watcher before Sanders’ left-wing politics got him thinking.

“If Bernie is a socialist, maybe I am. I got a little scared! So I began to research it,” he recalls. What he saw on Wikipedia was enough to convince him to subscribe to Jacobin and Current Affairs, two socialist magazines founded in the last decade. He joined the DSA. He’s since learned he loves canvassing, and he’s done dozens of shifts knocking on doors for Lee and Innamorato. “Other than someone trying to scam them, no one has knocked on their doors in 10 or 20 years wanting to have a conversation about values,” he says.

“Our No. 1 goal is to get Summer and Sara elected,” Bogi tells me. “Our No. 2 goal is to get Summer and Sara elected. Our No. 3 goal is to grow DSA.” (The PAC later endorsed Kareem Kandil, one of the DSA chapter’s founders, who is running against two opponents in a Democratic primary in a district stretching north of the city. The winner will face a Republican incumbent.)

Kenny Mostern, the group’s vice treasurer, served in a similar role for a California Green Party faction over a decade ago. “I’ve been doing left-wing politics of one form or another since I was in high school,” Mostern, now 50, says. “This is the most exciting moment of my political life. It’s not even close. To be able to say, ‘I’m a socialist,’ in the US, and then be able to run?”

DSA members in Pittsburgh already have their eyes on the 2019 municipal and county elections, and on the next round of state elections in 2020, when they hope to have as many as 20 candidates running for office. About a dozen members are also vying for precinct-level Democratic Party leadership positions on Tuesday. Winners will have the right to participate in the county party’s future endorsement sessions.

Neither Lee nor Innamorato came close to earning the local Democratic Party’s 2018 endorsement, nor have they found any support from the area’s largest unions—no doubt in part because when such choices were being made, the prospect of victory may have seemed remote. But on Wednesday morning, Pittsburgh’s Democrats—and its socialists—could wake up to a new political landscape.

“I think we’re ready for it,” Cohen, the Pittsburgh DSA co-chair, says. “We have a responsibility to make what would seem to be impossible a reality.”