CP photo: Jared Wickerham
After state Rep. Summer Lee
(D-Swissvale) scored an upset victory in 2018 over a 20-year incumbent, she wanted to help other candidates like her: lacking political connections, unapologetic, progressive, passionate.
She formed the UNITE political action committee (PAC)
in January to build a coalition of candidates who can advocate and speak genuinely on issues like poverty, immigration, criminal justice, and rights for LGBTQ and disabled people.
“You don't need to change who you are to run,” said Lee in January. “We need you to sound like you sound. Because your background is integral.”
With that goal in mind, UNITE PAC endorsed and helped organize the 2019 campaigns of three Pittsburgh-area politicians: Allegheny County Council candidates Bethany Hallam
(D-Ross) and Olivia Bennett
(D-Northview Heights) and Pittsburgh School Director candidate Pam Harbin (D-Squirrel Hill).
And all three of these candidates won their primary races last week, all but ensuring they will be seated come next year.
Lee was exalted by the victories and said she felt very fortunate to be able to back such strong candidates. She credits UNITE and several other progressively minded organizations like the Sierra Club and One Pennsylvania for joining to help get the three women elected. Lee says these victories show that her upset victory
was a “not a fluke.”
“With any election with progressive folks, they really just need a boost,” says Lee. “They just need help amplifying the messages that they already have.”
Lee says the candidates deserve most of the credit for their victories, adding that grassroots candidates usually just need help with organizing, figuring out how to raise campaign donations and work through the bureaucracies of running a campaign.
According to a press release, UNITE’s members each contribute monthly to the PAC and commit to volunteer for endorsed candidates. UNITE was the largest single contributor to both Hallam’s and Bennett’s campaign this past cycle. UNITE members knocked a combined 10,000 doors.
In addition to aiding authentically progressive candidates, Lee believes part of UNITE’s mission is to increase voter turnout. That appeared to be the case in Bennett’s race. Compared to the 2015 primary, which was also contested between two Democrats, Bennett’s 2019 race increased vote totals by more than 1,600 tallies.
Bennett says her personal story helped her to victory. “Raised in Manchester, I saw first-hand the detrimental effects of violence and economic hardship,” says Bennett in a press release. “I have been active in the streets protesting against police brutality, advocating for sensible gun control, and standing in solidarity with vulnerable communities. As County Councilwoman, I will continue to stand up for policies that benefit people from all walks of life in Allegheny County.”
Lee is hopeful that with the three victories, more candidates will be encouraged to run, maybe join UNITE, and help turn non-voters into voters. She says the PAC is looking to target areas in the Mon Valley, Penn Hills, and Pittsburgh.
“I think more candidates will want to run,” says Lee. “Every single time our movements gets a victory, it gets people more involved. What we think as apathy in our communities is actually hopelessness.”