Summer Lee, an African-American lawyer, community organizer and member of the Democratic Socialists of America profiled in our June cover story, recently won the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania House District 34 on a resolutely progressive platform. With no Republican likely to file in this deep blue district, Lee is almost certainly headed to Harrisburg.
What do you say to those who claim progressive candidates hurt Democrats’ chances?
I don’t think it’s true. I think the people who say that don’t necessarily believe in progressive politics and they project that onto other people.
Politics speaks to everybody if it’s done correctly. My campaign reached people who voted for Bernie Sanders, for Hillary Clinton, for Donald Trump. They were enthusiastic about our message. Everywhere we went, people cared about their kid’s education, their air and their water. They cared about a living wage.
And maybe sometimes words might be frightening to them, like, “oh, you’re a socialist.” But we didn’t do sensationalism. We were patient, we talked to people about what they care about. We helped them understand that addressing the things they care about isn’t a scary thing, it’s not unattainable.
If someone who was considered a radical black woman can win in a district like this, you can absolutely have progressive politics anywhere in Pennsylvania.
You told CNN recently “capitalism works on the back of my community and communities
of color and poor communities across the country.”
I think when you look at the system, at white supremacy, at what we call a meritocracy and at capitalism, you’re quickly able to see which communities were always destined to fail or to be disadvantaged.
People tell us that the things I fought for in my platform are just pie in the sky, being progressive for progressive’s sake. That’s not true. When we ask for free education, we’re not saying that because it sounds nice, we’re saying that because as a young black woman who grew up in a poor black town, my family was not able to amass generational wealth because of the history of capitalism, the history of racism. So when it came time for me to go to college, I was a first- generation college student. I didn’t have family members or anyone who could help me offset the costs.
Black students are more likely to shoulder loan debt, which means that we’re more likely to go into the next generation behind. It doesn’t seem like a fair system.
When you look at other industrialized countries, you don’t see residents making the hard decision between, am I going to go to the doctor and find out if I just had a heart attack or am I going to pay my bills or am I going to ignore it? That is absurd, but that’s how we’re living in the United States of America.
We have turned our backs on so many people and I think capitalism has run amuck. I mean, that we’re even talking about capitalism and it’s not just like a “Duh.” When we look at just outrageous income inequality, the fact that we have not just revolted is crazy to me.
What are your priorities for your first year?
Now we’re looking to other races, we want to make sure that we’re helping other candidates. We’ve built a huge organization that we should be able to mobilize, to tap into, to keep this
people-powered movement powered.
In Harrisburg, if I had to focus on something I would say mass incarceration, doing something on legislation with cash bail and decreasing the prison population. Hand in hand with that is a funding scheme for education, ending the school-to-prison pipeline. And for my town’s sake, I’ve been an advocate for environmental justice and obviously I don’t intend to relent.
If you look at these issues as separate, you’re missing something. Your politics is incomplete.