By Megan Guza, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Summer Lee’s historic victory in Tuesday’s midterm election secured her a place in history as Pennsylvania’s first Black congresswoman, but experts and organizers say her win speaks to a broader movement that is focused on representation and beliefs rather than solely electability.
“I think this is a moment that Black voters have been waiting for for quite some time here in Pennsylvania — to know that our voices are being heard and that our needs will begin to get to be met,” said Kadida Kenner, executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, an organization that focuses year-round on registering Pennsylvanians to vote.
Ms. Lee’s underdog campaign earned her a U.S. House seat last week, but it began in earnest in 2018 when she unseated a 10-year Democratic establishment incumbent in the primary for the Pennsylvania House 34th District.
In her campaign for Congress, she faced replacing the retiring Mike Doyle, a 15-term moderate Democrat, all while going up against a Republican candidate of the same name. Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, Josh Shapiro’s running mate and the lieutenant governor-elect, will be the first African American to hold an executive branch elective office in Pennsylvania.
“She is an amazing story of organizing and campaigning and, in many ways, proving the skeptics wrong,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
She said Ms. Lee’s win is particularly notable because of the odds she had against her: women of color face myriad systemic issues on top of a lack of resources and questions of electability.
Ms. Lee acknowledged those long odds herself in an election-night speech as outlets such as CNN and NBC began calling her race.
“Our work is not done,” she said. “We had to go through ugly to get here. There’s a reason why there had never been a Black woman — ever — to serve in the history of Pennsylvania. They’re not going to let up on us. They’re not going to relent.”
The historic nature of Ms. Lee’s election reverberated far beyond Western Pennsylvania: From the New York Times and MSNBC talk shows to Teen Vogue and Essence, writers and analysts took note of the Mon Valley native.
Ms. Kenner said Black voters — particularly Black women — have acted as a firewall in recent years against extremist policies and legislation and overall come to “the defense of democracy.
“So to know that our voices are being heard, that we can put people who look like us into the highest levels of government — not just here in Pennsylvania but in Congress and D.C. and the presidency, the vice presidency — it just says that … progress is happening,” she said. “It doesn’t always happen as fast as you want it to happen, but it is happening.”
Black candidates were elevated to state and federal offices in historic firsts nationwide last week. In Maryland, Democrat Wes Moore became the state’s first Black governor, while Democrat Anthony Brown was elected the first Black attorney general in Maryland. Andrea Campbell, too, became the first Black attorney general in Massachusetts history.
In Connecticut, Democrats Erick Russell and Stephanie Thomas will become the state’s first Black and out LGBTQ treasurer and secretary of state, respectively.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov.-elect Austin Davis, of McKeesport, will become the highest serving Black man in the state.
“I’m excited to know that Black folks, Black children, and all people are going to see a Black man in the second-highest level of executive leadership in the state in Austin Davis,” Ms. Kenner said.
Mr. Davis, currently serving in the statehouse as the representative from the 35th District, acknowledged his history-making night during a victory remarks late Tuesday night.
“Pennsylvania has elected its first Black lieutenant governor in our Commonwealth’s history,” he said. “I can’t even put into words what this moment means for me and my family … and the message it sends to millions throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.”
Indeed, Ms. Walsh said, the election of Black candidates give children new figures to look up to. She said Ms. Lee’s election is particularly significant for Black girls.
“It just opens up a world of possibilities of things that Black girls in her district can look to her and say, ‘a member of Congress can look like me,’” she said. “She becomes a powerful role model, and it’s important for the future so that new generations of young Black women will step forward and want to follow in her footsteps.”