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Allegheny

Innamorato, Lee say Democratic Socialism is 'common sense'

| Thursday, May 17, 2018, 3:42 p.m.
Summer Lee, left, of Swissvale, and Sara Innamorato, of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, each won Democratic primary races for state House seats.
Summer Lee, left, of Swissvale, and Sara Innamorato, of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, each won Democratic primary races for state House seats.

Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee have spent a lot of time explaining themselves since scoring big wins over incumbent state representatives in Tuesday's primary election.

They are registered Democrats who belong to the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

A day after their victories, Innamorato and Lee found themselves spelling out what that means in numerous interviews with local and national media outlets.

Innamorato, 32, of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, said she understands socialism is a “very scary term for some people, specifically because of what else happened in the world with the term socialist attached to it.”

But she said her brand of Democratic Socialism revolves around improving access to health care, education and better wages.

Lee, 30, of Swissvale, said their campaigns resonated with people who are struggling under the weight of student loan debt and medical bills and who want basic things like clean air, clean water and good educations for their children. She said rising education and health care costs are impeding too many people from improving their position in society, and she wants to change that for people like her who didn't grow up wealthy.

“You can call that socialism. I think it's common sense,” said Lee, a political organizer and activist who organized successful write-in campaigns for Woodland Hills School Board candidates before running for the state House.

It appears a successful write-in campaign is the only thing that could keep Innamorato or Lee from going to the state House: No Republicans filed to run in their respective state House districts.

Both received congratulatory phone calls Wednesday from America's most famous Democratic Socialist, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Innamorato defeated state Rep. Dom Costa of Pittsburgh's Stanton Heights by about 28 percentage points, according to unofficial results. Costa, a former Pittsburgh police chief, has held office since 2009.

Lee won by nearly 36 percentage points over state Rep. Paul Costa, a cousin of Dom Costa who has held office since 1999. Lee said she would be the first African American woman to represent Western Pennsylvania in the state House.

As Sanders did during his 2016 campaign, Innamorato pointed to Nordic countries as models of where Democratic Socialism is working.

“I think we tend to look at those examples like China rather than the Scandinavian countries who identify with Democratic Socialism,” Innamorato said. “It's not a complete totalitarian regime and takeover of all the processes under government control. It's more simple than that. It's how do we center people over corporations when we're creating and crafting legislation.”

Paul Costa, reached by phone Tuesday, said Lee ran an impressive campaign that drove voter turnout higher than it normally is in midterm election years when a presidential race isn't on the ballot. Nearly 10,200 Democrats cast votes in the 34th District race Tuesday, up from more than 5,800 in 2014 when Costa was unopposed, Allegheny County Elections records show.

Costa said Lee and Innamorato's agenda will face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“As far as moving legislation in the minority, it's not that easy,” he said.

Lee acknowledged the challenges she and Innamorato face.

“Considering our state government, I think there is very little that will get bipartisan support right now,” she said.

Both candidates have called for higher taxes on wealthy Pennsylvanians to help pay for their proposals.

Lee and Innamorato identified parts of their agenda that they think could get bipartisan support, including criminal justice reforms such as ending cash bail and eliminating driver's license suspensions for people with drug-related felonies. Conservative state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, introduced a bill to do the latter.

Lee said the solution to Harrisburg's gridlock is to get more Democrats elected. She said that might be more realistic than some people think, given the response she saw to her and Innamorato's campaigns.

“We have to be able to talk to people from different backgrounds,” she said. “We did that in this campaign. We mobilized people across demographics. I just am not convinced that this cannot be replicated.”

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has grown since the 2016 election, mirroring national trends, and now has more than 500 members. The wins by Innamorato and Lee follow one last fall by DSA-endorsed district judge candidate Mik Pappas of Pittsburgh's Highland Park. He knocked off a 24-year incumbent.

Kareem Kandil, a third DSA-endorsed state House candidate in Tuesday's primary, finished third in a three-way race in a district north of Pittsburgh, but the DSA said in a news release that “the tightness of this race in a historically Republican district is in itself a success for left politics.”

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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