Will Anti-Fracking Congresswoman Summer Lee Hold Her Pennsylvania Seat?

Some unions with fossil fuel ties have endorsed her Democratic challenger.

A close-up photo of Summer Lee, a Black woman

Annabelle Gordon/CNP/Zuma

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

With just two weeks left until the Democratic primary for western Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, climate and environmental groups have overwhelmingly endorsed the anti-fracking incumbent, Rep. Summer Lee. 

One of the only contested Democratic congressional primaries in the state, the race between Lee and Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel has drawn attention, with the candidates clashing over the Biden Administration’s continued military funding for Israel and the GOP-funded Moderate PAC bankrolling advertisements targeting Lee on behalf of Patel, who supports continuing military aid. 

On Wednesday, the Lee campaign said it has received a slate of new and existing endorsements from 14 prominent climate and environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Sunrise Movement, Sunrise Pittsburgh, Zero Hour, the Sierra Club of Pennsylvania, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Jane Fonda Climate PAC. The endorsements shift focus away from Israel and Palestine to Lee’s environmental justice platform, which advocates for bringing jobs and money to a district mostly made up of Pittsburgh that has spent decades under the thumb of the fossil fuel industry.

Edith Abeyta, an environmental justice organizer and air quality advocate in the district, said she is an enthusiastic supporter of Lee’s re-election campaign. “For me, it’s this intersectionality that Lee upholds within her district,” Abeyta said. “She represents a lot of people that live in environmental justice zones and frontline communities, and I think she gets it…she’s a voice for the people.” 

The 12th district includes the city of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh suburbs like Bethel Park, and environmental justice communities like Clairton and Braddock, both home to industrial facilities owned and operated by US Steel. In 2022, Lee won the general election against Republican Mike Doyle with 56 percent of the vote.

In February, Lee was endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in a vote of 440 to 299. Although there is no recent public polling for the primary, Lee had raised $1.4 million, while Patel had raised $311,310 as of the last financial disclosure period

The race fits into a national trend of moderate challenges to sitting progressives, many funded by the pro-Israel lobby, and raises questions about how much voters’ decisionmaking in 2024 will be driven by climate change and the environment, particularly in frontline districts like this one. It’s also seen by some as a political bellwether for voters’ mood in a crucial presidential swing state. Energy and environmental issues remain divisive in Pennsylvania: Prominent Democrats like Gov. Josh Shapiro have recently warned President Biden that his temporary pause on liquified natural gas exports could hurt his chances in the upcoming election. 

“I came in, in 2018 when I first ran, as an environmental justice champion, and there were many opportunities along the way to waver…and do the easy thing and accept corporate polluters, their dollars and their influence,” Lee said. “[But] we stayed true to our pathway.”

Lee said the endorsements and support from environmental justice communities for her campaign “speaks to the power that we’re building, and it speaks to the urgency of this moment.” 

“We don’t have time to waste,” she said.

As a candidate for Congress in 2022, Lee ran on an unapologetically anti-fracking, pro-environmental justice platform in a district historically known for its deep ties to fossil fuels and heavy industry. Lee—who grew up in North Braddock and Swissvale—rose to political prominence in the region, amassing a diverse base that was invigorated by her strong opposition to extractive industries.

Tony Buba, a documentary filmmaker who was born in Braddock in 1943, remembers seeing Lee speak at a community meeting in January of 2019, just after a fire at the US Steel-owned Clairton Coke Works destroyed the plant’s pollution controls. Buba said he was impressed that Lee didn’t seem to be intimidated by what he felt was an audience hostile to her message of advocating for a public health response to air pollution and investment in a green transition. The fallout from the fire eventually led to a lawsuit against US Steel and a $42 million settlement under the Clean Air Act. “She just fought for the community, saying this is what we need,” Buba said. “She’s never backed down.”

“I just see [Lee] as a person of character who’s willing to risk any election for what she thinks benefits the community,” he said. “In the [six] years she’s been in office she has really not disappointed me, which is really difficult to say about most people I’ve voted for in the past.”

Lee speaks at a press conference in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Allison Bailey/NurPhoto/Zuma

To Kenneth Broadbent, the business manager for Steamfitters Union Local 449, which has endorsed Patel’s candidacy, Patel is better positioned to work productively with US Steel, which was bought by the Japanese company Nippon Steel in a pending sale announced in 2023. 

“The building trades sure don’t want US Steel to leave western Pennsylvania,” he said. “We believe Patel would work with US Steel and help create jobs here,” while still adhering to environmental regulations. “But let’s have a working relationship to keep good paying jobs. It’s important for the survival of Pittsburgh.” Broadbent said that some Democrats have “gone too far left” and “Republicans have gone too far right.”

“We need the moderates,” he said.

In the 2022 Democratic primary, Lee won a five-way, competitive race with 42 percent of the vote. Her closest opponent in that race, Steve Irwin, finished fewer than 1,000 votes behind her.

With her victory in the general election in 2022, Lee became the first Black woman elected to Congress in western Pennsylvania. 

Lee speaks often about being motivated by her experience growing up in predominantly Black and brown communities disproportionately impacted by air pollution. In the American Lung Association’s 2023 report on the State of the Air, Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, earned an F for 24-hour particle pollution and a C for ozone. Poor air quality has a profound effect on public health in the area: the rate of childhood asthma in Clairton is 22 percent, nearly three times the national rate. 

Ilyas Khan, the 20-year-old hub coordinator for Sunrise Pittsburgh, moved to the 12th district at 15 years old but grew up visiting family in the district. Khan had childhood asthma and was hospitalized on occasions in both Buffalo, NY—where they lived—and in Pittsburgh, but they said that their asthma would get markedly worse whenever they were in Pittsburgh. “The environment was just so heavily polluted that even the three hour difference between our two cities would completely change how my body responded,” Khan said. 

Khan said Sunrise Pittsburgh, which also endorsed Lee’s first run for Congress in 2022, feels that the congresswoman has followed through on her promises to champion environmental justice. “The fact that we have someone in office who is advocating for people like me, who ostensibly have a direct health issue related to this environmental abuse by corporations, has been, at least for me, a real change,” Khan said.

Lee is one of the few Democratic elected officials in Pennsylvania to take a strong stance against fracking, a position that is especially rare in the western part of the state. John Fetterman, now a US Senator from Pennsylvania and the former mayor of Braddock, once supported a moratorium on fracking in the state. But he has since changed his position, and in 2017, he endorsed plans at Braddock’s US Steel Edgar Thomson Steel Works to drill fracking wells on site, something that Summer Lee opposed

“When there was a fracking proposal in the Mon Valley, we joined with the community to fight back and stopped it in its tracks,” she writes on the environmental justice section of her website. “The people in our community have been fighting back against fossil fuel corporations for decades, and I am proud to continue to stand with them.” 

In their endorsement for Lee, Food & Water Action also highlighted the fight against fracking in Braddock. “Food & Water Action helped her stop a fracking well in her hometown of Braddock, PA and supported her efforts to end fossil fuel handouts,” they write. “In Congress, she has fought to end fracking, pass a Green New Deal, provide clean energy jobs, and to ensure clean air and water for all, especially marginalized communities.” The fracking proposal at Edgar Thomson was eventually withdrawn in 2021

Lee identified two major challenges to opposing fracking in Pennsylvania: the reality of fossil fuel production in the state, which is the second largest natural gas producer in the country after Texas, and the lobbying power of the oil and gas industry and trade unions, which make politicians in both parties less likely to take a stand against unconventional drilling: “Pennsylvania as a whole has a very daunting task ahead of us, mapping out what our energy future is going to be.” 

She emphasized that a transition needs to prioritize frontline communities and union jobs, and added that fears of job losses—caused in part by messaging from the oil and gas industry—have also made it particularly challenging for politicians to boldly champion a swift transition away from fossil fuels. 

Lee said that a green transition will require listening to community concerns from workers who fear losing their jobs and helping them prepare for a green transition. “If our climate goals are telling us that it’s inevitable that we must transition from fossil fuels…but we’re still not creating and fostering an environment for the workers to talk out loud and plan out loud for the future economies, then we are doing them the same disservice that past generations did to its workers,” Lee said.

“It’s short term pain for long term gain, and very few politicians want that,” she said. 

The climate change issue page on Patel’s campaign website includes three brief paragraphs calling climate change an “existential threat” and emphasizing “building back” the EPA to track impacts of environmental pollution in marginalized communities. 

“In Congress, I’ll use my entrepreneurial spirit to create pathways that invest in renewables and workforce development programs, while ensuring broadened community involvement in the fight against climate change,” Patel writes.

The Patel campaign did not respond to requests for further information about the candidate’s views on climate and environmental policy. 

In 2022, when she also ran for Congress in the 12th district but dropped out before the primary, Patel told Pittsburgh’s WESA that Pennsylvania is an “energy state” and “we need to be responsible how we have conversations around jobs and environment. I think that it would be a false choice that we have to pick between the two,” echoing the rhetoric of Democratic leaders in the state like Fetterman and Josh Shapiro, now the governor, who does not oppose fracking. 

Abeyta, a community organizer who began fighting the proposed fracking wells in Braddock more than a decade ago, said that the idea that all western Pennsylvanians support fracking is a false narrative. 

“Everybody I know and talk to does not support the industry,” Abeyta said. “I think [Lee] gives voice to the people that live in southwestern Pennsylvania that actually believe it is possible to have a healthy environment, a safe place for all people to live.”

Patel, a borough council member in Edgewood, announced her candidacy in October 2023, establishing herself as a moderate alternative to Lee’s progressive platform and an ally to President Biden. Patel has been endorsed by some local trade groups and elected officials, but has no climate or environmental organization endorsements thus far. 

Along with her environmental supporters, Lee has also been endorsed by local officials like the mayor of Pittsburgh, the mayor of Braddock and the Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, as well as national figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bob Casey, the state’s other Democratic senator. Patel’s endorsements include labor and union groups like Steamfitters Local Union 449, the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council and local politicians from North Braddock, Mckeesport and West Mifflin.

Patel and Lee have clashed most publicly on the Biden administration’s approach to Israel. Lee has called for a ceasefire and opposes Biden’s continued funding of Israel’s military during its bombardment of Gaza, which has killed more than 33,000 people since October and caused catastrophic famine. Patel supports providing continued military funding to Israel, and has claimed that Democratic elected officials should stand behind the president.

Lee at a press conference announcing a House resolution calling for a Gaza ceasefire.

Allison Bailey/NurPhoto/Zuma

Patel has called Lee “fringe” and “extreme,” and has reportedly advocated for Republicans and Independents to re-register as Democrats in order to vote against Lee in the primary. In December, Patel accused Lee of “amplifying terrorist propaganda, stoking hatred, stoking the worst parts of human nature” for sharing an Al-Jazeera report on social media that said Israel was responsible for bombing a Gaza hospital. 

In a statement in response to Patel’s comments, Lee wrote that “it takes a shameful level of cynicism to exploit the death and suffering of Israelis and Palestinians to spew baseless lies and score cheap political points” and alleged that Patel was “taking the advice of her Republican backers instead of the people of PA-12.”

Patel’s challenge to Lee’s seat has drummed up some national support from moderates and Republicans, with the GOP-funded Moderate PAC spending over $500,000, according to political advertising tracker AdImpact, on advertisements that target Lee’s critiques of the Biden Administration. Lee’s campaign has reportedly spent more than $700,000 on ads.

In some ways, the conflict is reminiscent of Lee’s first congressional race, where she overcame millions in opposition spending from the pro-Israel lobby, led by AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel. Now, she’s among a slate of progressive candidates who—upon calling for a ceasefire in Gaza—have been targeted by groups that are raising millions of dollars to oust progressive Democrats who criticize Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. 

Lee said that the media has overemphasized the centrality of Israel and Palestine in the race, and said that although voters care about the crisis in Gaza, very few voters in the district have made it their top issue. 

“We know from being outdoors, we know from our consistent and continuing organizing work, that climate is still just as important as it always has been, and so, too, are all the other issues,” Lee said. 

Some advocates say that Lee’s success in the district is evidence that the region is ready for a green transition away from the industries that have bogged the area down for decades.

A 2021 poll conducted by the progressive think tank Data for Progress showed that more than half of Pennsylvania voters supported ending fracking immediately or phasing it out over time. 

Matt Nemeth, a working groups coordinator with Allegheny County’s Green Party, said that Lee stands out from other Democrats for her willingness to vocalize her constituency’s opposition to the industry. 

“There’s a big discrepancy between what the people want and what the government officials are doing,” Nemeth said. “One reason why I support [Lee] is she’s willing to stand up and call out the fracking industry.” 

The fossil fuel industry in western Pennsylvania works to pit environmental interests against jobs, Nemeth said, arguing that without fossil fuels and the industries, like steel making, that still depend on them, the region’s economy would suffer.

“Something that is still really used as a wedge issue in terms of environmental protections and public health protections is this idea that we have to have this heavy, dirty industry even though it’s harming people…or else we aren’t going to be able to do jobs here,” Nemeth said. “Which is just complete hogwash.”

Broadbent said that jobs are the most important issue for many residents in western Pennsylvania, and the union believes Patel will be more likely to protect manufacturing and building trade jobs—and bring more of them to the region. 

“We have backed Patel because we believe in jobs,” he said. “We want clean water, clean air, we believe in climate change, but we shouldn’t eliminate jobs at the same time. We can do it all together.”

Lee has made a green jobs transition a central focus of her work in Congress: she has been a vocal advocate for jobs-oriented Green New Deal legislation, including the Green New Deal resolution, the Green New Deal for Health and the Green New Deal for Public Housing. 

Lee also introduced the Hazard Pay for Health Care Workers Act, which would provide funding for hazard pay and safety measures for workers during climate and environmental emergencies, and introduced the Bipartisan Abandoned Wells Remediation and Research Act, a bill aimed at addressing methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells, which passed through the House’s Science Space and Technology Committee with bipartisan support.

The congresswoman has also advocated for millions of dollars from the Inflation Reduction and Infrastructure Acts to fund local investments in green jobs, electrified transportation, clean energy, workforce development and more. 

On Tuesday, Lee—alongside Reps. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA)—urged the Environmental Protection Agency to update air pollution standards for trains and advocated for the use of unionized labor in work related to green train technology.

“I think my climate platform speaks for itself,” Lee said. “My opponent doesn’t have one.”

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

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