Pennsylvania state representatives Dom and Paul Costa have combined for more than 30 years of elected experience. They fit a typical mold of Southwestern Pennsylvania Democrats: extensive networks of family and friends in elected office, and many years working in local government. The system is set up for the Costas to stay in office without facing any serious political challengers.
Pennsylvania’s primary election sent a shock through that system. On May 15, two candidates backed by Democratic Socialists of America (an upstart, progressive political group) each defeated a Costa — and by a wide margin. The winning candidates, Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, are female millennials who campaigned on specific left-wing policies such as single-payer healthcare and a ban on natural-gas drilling. Each woman says her victory should open doors for candidates that cut against the Democratic Party’s regional grain, especially progressives and people of color.
Innamorato defeated Dom Costa in Pennsylvania state House District 21. She secured 64 percent of the vote in what political analysts expected to be a close race.
“I always had to believe that we would win,” says Innamorato. “But I didn't think it would be by that much.”
Innamorato believes her campaign was successful because of the large number of volunteers willing to knock on doors, and her many individual donors. She celebrated her victory with scores of campaign workers and volunteers but acknowledges the presence of her father’s oldest friend made a big difference. Innamorato’s father suffered from an opioid addiction and passed away several years ago.
“One of my really early supporters found me on LinkedIn, and him and his wife were there,” says Innamorato. “He said to me, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you,’ and that means a lot.”
During the campaign, Dom Costa challenged the idea that voters in the district wanted progressive policies. Innamorato says her victory shows that politicians in the region can support progressive policies without fear of losing elections. She says the electorate is not as moderate as some long-term politicians believe.
“I hope [the primary election] emboldens some secret progressives in elected office,” says Innamorato. “I hope they stop thinking, ‘I will get voted out if I don’t vote for this abortion ban.’ They can’t use that excuse any more. [The election] says that this is possible, you can run on progressive platforms, you can be a DSA member.”
Innamorato aims to carry momentum from her election and boost lesser-noticed progressive initiatives in Harrisburg, such as “Medicare for All” legislation and increasing state funding to affordable housing.
Lee overwhelmingly won her Pennsylvania state House District 34 election against incumbent Paul Costa. With primary election turnout near presidential levels, Lee received more than 6,800 votes and won with 67 percent. Despite the romp, she didn’t really reach out to celebrate after her victory.
“No, I am lame. I am emotionally guarded,” Lee says. “I didn’t make phone calls.”
Lee did talk to other progressive state representatives who called to congratulate her, including U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Forest Hills).
Lee says her victory proves that people of color can win elections, even in areas where white people are the majority of voters.
“We need to expand our vision of what a candidate looks like,” says Lee. “This is a majority white district. [The election] proves the progressive message, even when delivered by a young black woman in an overwhelmingly white area, can win.”
Lee still has a general election to conquer, but Republicans are not running a candidate. After securing the vast majority of votes in a district that is more than two-thirds white residents, Lee is expected to become the first black woman to represent Southwestern Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
State Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport), who is black, also recently won a state representative race in the majority-white 35th state House District. Lee says victories by her and Davis show that minority candidates can win anywhere in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“It's not true that a black candidate can only win in a majority-black district,” says Lee.
Lee plans to focus on a litany of progressive policy proposals, such as bringing equity to public-school funding, combating gun violence and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. She also champions improving air quality for Mon Valley residents by pushing against natural-gas drilling.
“When you hear living in the Mon Valley is equivalent to smoking a cigarette a day, how do you keep people in this community?” says Lee. “We need some radical shifts in policy.”