U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-12th District) is the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.
She joined the House of Representatives at a time of deep political division in Washington D.C., as a member of the House’s minority party, but has been a strong progressive voice during her time as a state representative in Pennsylvania’s Legislature.
Lee, 35, spoke to the Capital-Star while she was in her district late last month, a swing through western Pennsylvania that included a ceremonial swearing-in at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, a visit to a local high school recovering from a fire, a stop at Carnegie Mellon University to celebrate a new STEM education initiative, and a rally for striking workers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Obviously the intro we had to this Congress was a little unorthodox. What’s been your overall impression so far?
Lee: It was very striking to me: what’s stopping our government from defending into the type of chaos that we saw with [California Republican U.S. Rep.] Kevin McCarthy and the speaker vote, with the insurrection and the aftermath of that, because all of these are kind of one event that’s been ongoing, right. And the answer is: nothing but the people, nothing but a voter.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which our media, that institution, and our government, must work hand in hand for democracy to work. People need to have good information. They need to be aware in real-time what’s happening with our government, but also our government, our institution has to, in many ways, hold itself to a standard that’s not necessarily written down yet.
And when all of those things fail at the same time, we get what we’ve been seeing right now. And it’s really discouraging to see it because if you can recognize what’s happening, and you recognize the signs, and you don’t see people taking it as seriously as we should be, it can be incredibly frightening.
One of two things can happen: We can look back on this moment and what was happening with the speaker vote and just how the 118th Congress was launched and we’ll say it was a comical time where one party was inept. Or, we’ll look at that and say ‘that was a moment, an inflection point in the history of our democracy.’ And that it was another of the signs that we ignored, or that we brushed off in order to keep the status quo.
Q: You’re on the [House] Oversight Committee. What are you hoping to accomplish there?
Lee: We [Democrats] don’t have the gavel. So you’re kind of at the whim of whatever the Republicans put forward. We know that they’re going to be looking to re-litigate a lot of things, and the narratives that come with them: folks who are seeking refuge and asylum here being criminals, dehumanizing them; we have the Twitter Files, which was Hunter Biden. And this is taxpayer dollars being focused on political issues, issues that are not legislative, they are not really shouldn’t be what our focus is on.
Our opportunity as Democrats is to reveal to the public who these folks really are, and what their agenda truly is. Sometimes with cameras on us, sometimes with you know, more attention that a lot of our other committees will get in the 118th overall.
This is our opportunity to shine a light and to expose the Republicans using only the tools that they present to us, to take their own sham hearings, and expose the ways in which they are not looking to serve the working class people in America. The ways in which they are not actually prioritizing the very things that they ran on. The very issues that they elevated as important: are gas prices and the price of groceries important, or is what’s on Hunter Biden’s laptop important?
Is this a party that is looking to hold institutions and corporations accountable, or is it one that’s looking to instead enlarge the territory of corporations and protect corporate billionaires? And that’s what we’ve seen over just the very short amount of time that we’ve been here so far.
Q: You’re also on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. What are your hopes for that committee as far as western Pennsylvania; STEM education has been one of your big issues.
Lee: Western Pennsylvania is right at the cusp of being an innovation hub for technology, for STEM sciences, medicine, research, those are the industries that are already here or that are looking to expand here. And I think that my opportunity on Space, Science, and Technology is how do we bring that equity, that perspective? Who’s being left out or where is the opportunity gap that we had representation to bring people along and help them to be a part of this new technology, this research industry in western Pennsylvania?
We went to Pittsburgh Sci Tech [Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy] where we met students from Pittsburgh public schools, who are getting an opportunity that truly I never had, right? To walk through that school you see especially so many Black students and Black girls. I was so shocked at how many Black girls have not had their love of science snuffed out yet.
In my life, I went from being someone who enjoyed and found science fun and math to be easy, into someone who had been convinced that it wasn’t for me. But these are students, kids who have not had that happen yet, or at least if they are, it’s being counteracted by the opportunities that are presented to them. Well, here are kids who are learning to code they’re learning how to extract DNA but they still have that like light in their eye.
But not just for that work; they had light in their eye when I came and they saw themselves represented in government, in Congress, someone who looks like them and sounds like them, who has their dialect. We talked about what it’s like to navigate spaces as the only Black woman, and we talked about how we shift the balance of discomfort from us always being uncomfortable to making sure that other people share in that discomfort. These are conversations that we may not be having at all, if we didn’t have people like me positioned in these places.
So on Science and Technology, we want to bring those dollars back to western Pennsylvania, to grow our research, our innovation hub, but we also want to make sure that we are using those resources to bring more people into the fold, and not exclude them.
Q: Other women of color in Congress have been put under a lot of scrutiny and attacked for a lot of things other than their policy positions. As you’re entering Congress knowing that is the atmosphere, how are you preparing for it?
Lee: I love that question because it is the one that allows for the most honesty. It’s an honor to serve, it’s what I asked for. It’s a moment that we prepare for, but there’s also that piece of recognizing that life will be different. And the level of scrutiny is often unfair, in particular for progressive women of color. The standards and the expectations that are placed on them are so unrealistic as to be cruel.
It’s so important and meaningful to be able to come into this not alone. And even from the class of folks I’m coming in with now, like my roommate [U.S. Rep.] Delia Ramirez, who is from Chicago, and another progressive woman, the first Latina in all of the midwest to Congress. We’re figuring out how and where do we fit in in this institution, figuring out where do we fit in on this caucus? It’s easier to be bold, and to be courageous when you don’t have to do it alone.
So I have the benefit of having a cohort within my own freshman class to do that with and a group of progressives who came in before me who — I hate to say it sometimes, because there is a little bit of sorrow with it — but they kind of crawled so that we can walk, they took some blows, that my generation, my class will not have to take. We owe them a debt of gratitude for going through it and staying in it.
When I got to the state House it was the same situation. I came in with [state Reps] Sara Innamorato, and Liz Fiedler, and Danielle Friel Otten, we were a group of women who all came in at the same time, together.
There are women in politics who came in, particularly from western Pennsylvania, who left not because they weren’t brilliant and capable legislators, but because that institution was so stifling to them. It was so unwelcoming to them that they didn’t feel the benefit in staying there. And hopefully we can avoid that, and lessen that every generation, every cycle. Particularly for marginalized progressives who come in, you can hopefully make it a little bit easier for them.Kim Lyons is a contributor for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.