Voter turnout ballooned to 30 percent, demonstrating what we’ve always known—Turnout and participation are the results of active campaigning.
By Kenny Mostern
On May 15, 2018, two members of Pittsburgh DSA running with our endorsement, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, won their bids to receive the Democratic nomination to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. They received an overwhelming share of the votes, at 68% (Lee) and 64% (Innamorato), against conservative Democratic incumbents who were previously thought to be unbeatable. Because Lee and Innamorato both ran in overwhelmingly Democratic districts, and because they won the nomination resoundingly, we believe them to be as good as elected to the state House.
A third member endorsed by Pittsburgh DSA, Kareem Kandil, finished third in a closely split three-way race for the nomination in a wealthier and more conservative suburban district; his 2 5.5% of the vote, while less than needed to receive the nomination, was also a tremendous achievement in a district that has few DSA members and received far fewer resources than Lee’s or Innamorato’s districts. Kandil, a founding member of the current Pittsburgh DSA chapter, generated strong enthusiasm among our members for future runs for office.
Lee is an attorney from an African American working class community who ran on a platform of raising the minimum wage, bringing an end to the school to prison pipeline, and aggressively fighting air pollution and fracking. Innamorato has been a public relations specialist for non-profits promoting food access, women’s rights, and social justice, and centered her campaign on single-payer healthcare, progressive taxation, and housing as a human right. Kandil, a health care policy specialist and co-founder of the local DSA chapter, also ran on single payer and anti-fracking policies. Full candidate bios are at the bottom of this piece.
The role of Pittsburgh DSA and Pittsburgh DSA PAC
Over the course of a year and a half, Pittsburgh DSA has grown to over 550 committed activists. While our recent electoral success required serious coalition building with other organizations, including Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club, and others, we are currently well-positioned to recruit more candidates running on socialist values and policies. We offered our candidates their first base from which to grow their support. Our role as an organization is to identify capable candidates with a winnable plan, and to provide them with the skills and resources to get organized. Our candidates in this cycle included people who were already members of the DSA and candidates who spoke out as socialists regardless and were therefore recruitable to our organization. All three candidates ran openly as socialists—we supported no “compromise” or lesser-evil candidacies.
Overall, our members represented at least 15 percent, but probably closer to 25-30 percent, of the more than sixty thousand doors knocked by the three campaigns. (The 15 percent number comes from canvassing we specifically organized, and from walk sheets that specifically had “DSA” written on them when they were turned in. However, we know that dozens of shifts were taken by DSA members outside of our specifically scheduled canvasses and without being recorded as “DSA” by the campaigns.)
DSA members were the campaign managers and key staff of both Lee’s and Innamorato’s campaigns, and DSA members provided most of the data entry and precinct walk mapping that allowed the campaigns to track the work of so many volunteers. In the end, Pittsburgh DSA PAC has retained the data from the DSA portions of the campaign work, and we will use it to reach out and continue to build our membership and elect additional candidates for years to come.
Possibly the most dramatic effect of our work, besides electing our two candidates, was voter turnout. In both Lee’s and Innamorato’s districts, voter turnout in 2014 was 18%. This year it ballooned to 30%, while other nearby districts showed no similar increase. We demonstrated something that advocates of grassroots politics have always known—turnout and participation are the results of active campaigning.
We are now focused on recruiting candidates for the substantial number of winnable local races coming up in 2019. Our areas of greatest interest are district attorney of Allegheny County, several Pittsburgh city council and school board districts, and the host of municipal races in small jurisdictions throughout the county where struggling populations are increasingly receptive to a socialist message. We are discovering that when we spend the time talking to people, it’s clear that their values and our values are closely aligned. We believe that all of Allegheny County, and perhaps even all of Western Pennsylvania more broadly, is open to DSA’s message and DSA organizing.
Kenny Mostern is the Treasurer of Pittsburgh DSA PAC.
Summer Lee is an African-American attorney who grew up in North Braddock, a working class community immediately up the hill from the gritty mill town of Braddock just outside of the city of Pittsburgh. Exhaust from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works still blows in North Braddock, causing out of control asthma and other health problems for children in the district. After graduating from Howard Law School, Lee returned to her home community where she became a leader in the struggle to bring justice for racially profiled students in the Woodland Hills School District. She also worked as an organizer in the Fight for $15 struggle to raise the minimum wage.
Lee advocates cleaning up the air and ending fracking, removing armed police from the schools and an end to the school to prison pipeline for African American and poor students, labor planks including both a minimum wage hike and the right of workers to unionize, and the introduction of a millionaire’s tax to adequately fund public schools. She was thus able to bring together a coalition that garnered more votes for her alone than the total number of votes that had been cast in the same race four years earlier.
Sara Innamorato is a native of Ross Township, a suburb north of Pittsburgh. A member of a family that fell on hard times when her father became addicted to opioids, Innamorato paid her way through the University of Pittsburgh and temporarily took a job working for Apple. After starting her own PR consultancy for local nonprofits advocating for food access, women’s rights, and social justice, she also founded She Runs SWPA, an organization dedicated to electing more women from Western Pennsylvania to office. One of the outcomes of that last group was her own candidacy.
Innamorato’s campaign forefronted her support for single payer healthcare (Medicare For All). She spoke out against Pennsylvania’s tax system, one of the most economically regressive in the country. Running in a district that includes areas where long-term residents and communities are being pushed out as high-end development projects break ground, Innamorato ran a campaign emphasizing housing as a human right. With these emphases, Innamorato swept the Pittsburgh city half of the district while also winning in the suburban areas north of the Allegheny River.
Kareem Kandil was born in North Carolina and attended school in Western Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh and later working for several years in health care policy. Active in the local Muslim community, Kandil became an early organizer of the local DSA chapter as it grew in the aftermath of Clinton’s loss to Trump and the ensuing inauguration.
Kandil’s campaign was hampered somewhat by the fact that it was organized and launched considerably later than the campaigns of Lee and Innamorato. Still, running for an open seat in some of the wealthiest Pittsburgh suburbs against two more moderate candidates, he made substantial inroads and developed a significant level of name recognition by being the only candidate against fracking and in favor of single-payer healthcare.