Gainey, other Dems call out attack ads against Summer Lee in 12th District race

A coalition of Summer Lee supporters, upset about a campaign being supported by an outside group, are pressuring an opponent running in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District to condemn what they call attack ads from the United Democracy Project.

The pro-­Israel super PAC has disclosed nearly $1.1 million in advertising so far with spots attacking Lee, a Swissvale Democrat, or boosting candidate Steve Irwin, according to OpenSecrets. The 12th District includes Pittsburgh, eastern and southern Allegheny County suburbs, and western border communities in Westmoreland County, including Murrysville, North Huntingdon, Penn Township, Sewickley Township, Jeannette and parts of Hempfield.

Spending from super PACs has far outpaced spending from the candidates themselves. Most has gone toward messages attacking Lee and/or supporting Irwin, a Pittsburgh lawyer and first-time candidate after decades inside politics, but Lee also has garnered support from progressive groups.

The three major candidates are Lee, Irwin and University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson. They have spent about $800,000 combined so far, according to Federal Elections Commission reports. Not all of that has been on ads.

This month, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, state House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and a group of Allegheny County progressive Democrats sent a letter to the Irwin campaign condemning the attack ads, which they said are spreading misinformation about Lee. The letter calls on Irwin’s campaign to join them in criticizing the ads — which portray Lee as a phony Democrat who does not support President Biden.

“As Democrats from across the commonwealth, we find it shameful that you would team up with a corporate super PAC that has endorsed over 100+ pro-insurrectionist Republicans to attack and smear our Democratic colleague, state Rep. Summer Lee, as not a Democrat,” reads the letter, which also is signed by state Reps. Sara Innamorato and Jessica Benham, Allegheny County Council members Bethany Hallam and Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, as well as Pittsburgh City Council member Deb Gross. All are allies of Lee.

Courtesy of United Democracy Project

United Democracy Project mailer attacking Summer Lee


United Democracy Project is a super PAC affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the country’s largest pro-Israel political groups. AIPAC has endorsed Democrats and Republicans over the years, ranging from former President Obama to hardline conservatives such as U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from York.

The Lee campaign said various super PACs affiliated with AIPAC, including United Democracy Project, have spent nearly $2 million attacking her or supporting Irwin. This is compared with about $250,000 in pro-Lee spending from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Justice Democrats, two nationwide progressive groups. Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts of funds supporting or attacking candidates. They are prohibited from coordinating directly with campaigns.

Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University in Lancaster County, said Democrats are nervous about losing control of the U.S. House this cycle. He said that can attract millions of dollars in spending for races in battleground districts. But considering that the 12th District is a safe Democratic seat, Madonna said the outside spending there “seems to be a little expensive.”

AIPAC’s stated goals are to back candidates who support and defend Israel, including candidates who back aid to the country without conditions. The group has said it is supporting Irwin over Lee because of Irwin’s support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. However, the attack ads against Lee don’t mention Israel and instead accuse Lee of wanting to “dismantle the Democratic Party” and say she refuses to support Biden’s infrastructure bill.

The letter from Lee allies discusses not only her efforts to pass Democratic priorities in Harrisburg but also the political group she started, UNITE, which works to get progressive Democrats elected to offices across the Pittsburgh region.

Lee has earned a reputation as a progressive firebrand, which has garnered support from U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It also has attracted adversaries within the Democratic Party. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has supported candidates running against her, including Irwin. She also has been passed over for endorsements from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, which endorsed Irwin.

But Lee also has shown support for Democrats, especially in general elections. She campaigned with Biden in 2020 and worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

Irwin has no control over super PAC spending but the ads appear to be true, said his campaign spokesperson, Alistair Glover.

“Summer Lee did attack Joe Biden’s character, and she did refuse to support President Biden’s infrastructure law,” Glover said. “Every single member of the Democratic leadership in Congress, as well as President Obama, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and 20 members of the House Progressive Caucus have been endorsed by AIPAC. Steve Irwin is proud to stand up for the Jewish state of Israel and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”

In a statement, United Democracy Project defended its ads. The group points out a tweet Lee wrote in February 2021 that reads, in part: “I’ve clearly said there is no plan for success specifically within the Democratic Party. The plan is to dismantle them.”

That tweet was a reply in a long conversation with accounts asking why she hasn’t joined the Green Party. In that conversation, Lee criticized Democrats but also acknowledged that staying in the party is the best way to accomplish her goals.

Ryan Deto is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Ryan by email at or via Twitter .

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