Progressive Democrats scored a number of high-profile wins in the Pennsylvania primaries this week. State Rep. Summer Lee seems poised to win her race in the blue-leaning 12th District and become the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress; meanwhile, Izzy Smith-Wade-El, associated with the grassroots group Lancaster Stands Up in southern Pennsylvania, won his Democratic primary for a seat in the state legislature. Smith-Wade-El joins Ryan Grim to talk about what Pennsylvania’s apparent left-wing surge means for the midterms.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Newscaster: State Rep. Summer Lee is setting her sights on Capitol Hill. She announced just moments ago that she is running for U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle’s seat. He announced yesterday that he will not seek reelection.
Ryan Grim: Back in 2018, after Summer Lee had managed a successful write-in campaign for a school board candidate in the Pittsburgh area, her friends in the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter suggested she took a shot at primarying State Rep. Paul Costa, who had been representing the district for nearly 20 years.
Mehdi Hasan: In 2018, community organizer and Howard Law School grad Summer Lee mounted a primary challenge against an incumbent state representative, a popular establishment Democrat who had held his seat for 19 years.
RG: In a stunning upset that made national news, she crushed him by more than 2-1.
Newscaster: Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato each defeated incumbents to win their primary races for the Pennsylvania State Legislature.
RG: That same year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Joe Crowley and the other three members of the Squad won their races and went to Congress.
Summer Lee, the first Black woman from Western Pennsylvania elected to the legislature, continued building her base of support. And, in the four years since then, she’s built something of a Democratic Socialist machine, helping candidates across the area oust incumbents and shift the balance of power.
This cycle, with Congressman Mike Doyle announcing his retirement, she stepped into the open primary. So Doyle endorsed Steve Irwin, who labor journalist Mike Elk later exposed having done significant work in what companies like to call union avoidance; that helped keep the unions from going all-in for Irwin.
And six weeks ago, the group Emily’s List put a poll into the field and found that Summer Lee enjoyed a commanding 25-point lead over Irwin, 38-13. When voters were presented with more information about the candidates, Lee climbed up to 49 percent to Irwin’s 21. And a third contender, University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson, a progressive who’d run in 2020 against Doyle, got 15 percent.
The poll conducted by GQR also found Lee holding a comfortable +29 approval rating among likely primary voters. In other words, the race was basically over and the 34-year-old Lee was on her way toward becoming the newest addition to the Squad.
And then AIPAC stepped in. AIPAC this cycle is largely funded by Republican donors having shed its longtime bipartisan image and has endorsed more than 100 Republicans who voted to oppose certifying Biden’s election, yet it jumped into this Democratic primary spending millions of dollars blasting Summer Lee for being “not a good enough Democrat.”
Political Ad: She calls herself a Democrat, but Summer Lee said she wanted to dismantle the Democratic Party — dismantle it — and she’s done everything in her power to do just that.
When Joe Biden was running against Trump, Summer Lee attacked Biden’s character, said he’d take us backwards, and Lee refused to support Biden’s infrastructure plan that’s now rebuilding bridges and roads in Western Pennsylvania.
Summer Lee — more interested in fighting Democrats than getting results. UDP is responsible for the content of this ad.
RG: Now AIPAC put roughly $2 million behind that ad and ones like it, part of their $3 million in total spending. That kind of money blanketing the airwaves took a runaway blowout election and turned it into a dead heat.
As of now, Lee leaves with 446 votes, and seems likely that she’ll be certified the winner by the end of the week, though Irwin is now threatening a recount. She’ll have no trouble in the general election if she wins the primary.
Now, in Oregon, progressive candidates also stunned their big money back opponents. A super PAC funded by the pharmaceutical industry blew more than a million dollars in an effort to salvage the career of former Blue Dog Chair Kurt Schrader, the Oregon Democrat who cast the deciding vote against drug pricing reform in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and organized with Rep. Josh Gottheimer to derail President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. His opponent, Jamie McLeod Skinner, lambasted him repeatedly as, “the Joe Manchin of the House.” Because Oregon votes by mail and some ballots were blurred and unreadable in areas favorable to Schrader, results may not be known until early next week. But despite a funding disparity of some 10-1, the incumbent is on the ropes and looks like he is probably going to lose.
Another super PAC in Oregon, funded by a cryptocurrency fortune and organized around the project of pandemic prevention, called Protect Our Future, spent some $10 million to boost Carrick Flynn, while the super PAC linked to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority PAC, also dropped $1 million into the race. It backfired, and local Democrats as well as national progressives, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and Working Families Party, rallied behind State Rep. Andrea Salinas, who also appears poised for a victory.
Now, back in Pennsylvania, the marquee race on the Democratic side turned into a blowout. Democratic Gov. John Fetterman won over the party back to Conor Lamb even as he was hospitalized and recovering from a stroke. Sarah Longwell on the podcast The Focus Group recently put veterans appeal this way:
Sarah Longwell: I gotta tell ya’: I do so many focus groups and I can count on one hand the number of candidates where people are actually enthusiastic about them. But they are enthusiastic about Fetterman. I gotta tell you though: something happened in the Trump-voter focus groups that basically never happens, which is that there were a couple of people who were open to voting for Fetterman.
RG: Party bosses also tried to take out three Philadelphia state representatives for being too progressive — and were trounced in all three races. Along the way, they saw one of their own incumbents ousted by a nurse, Tariq Khan, running to their left.
And in Lancaster County, Izzy Smith Wade-El beat his conservative Democratic opponent in a primary for a State House seat. Smith Wade-El is a housing activist and the Lancaster City Council president, and soon he’ll be the state house representative for the area.
Izzy, welcome to Deconstructed.
Izzy Smith Wade-El: Hey, Ryan, thank you for having me. Really honored to be here.
RG: And congratulations on your — what looks to be a — victory last night.
ISW: Yeah, we are really excited. We weren’t able to declare victory while we were still at the party. But the numbers came in shortly after and they’ve continued into today. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished together over here.
RG: And so you’ll be a state representative. And your district will include, what? About half of Lancaster and then Millersville and some of the surrounding area within Lancaster County? Is that about right?
ISW: Yeah, that’s about right. There’s a municipality called Lancaster Township that surrounds the city on both sides. And that’s part of the brand new H.D. 49.
RG: And so you may or may not know this, but right after the 2016 election, I kind of looked around the country looking for a place that I could focus some reporting on over the coming years just to see how Hillary’s loss and Trump’s victory was changing both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
And for a variety of different reasons, I landed on Lancaster. One of them is it’s a nice, nice driving distance from Washington DC, but it’s not at all Washington D.C.
ISW: No, it is not.
RG: And another is I love Shoofly pie. It is an Amish delicacy. You just can’t get it anywhere else.
ISW: That’s true. But I’ll be honest, Ryan: I can’t get through more than two bites. It’s delicious. It’s just too much for me. [Laughs.]
RG: [Laughs.] This is true. This is also true. But maybe that’s a virtue of it, actually.
And so it’s a nice excuse to go visit there.
RG: And Lancaster had some interesting developments, and continues to. So right after Trump wins, this organization gets formed called Lancaster Stands Up, which was similar to a lot of groups around the country that were kind of developing spontaneously. You saw Invisibles popping up everywhere across the country; just stunned, outraged, shocked, frightened — and ultimately energized people coming together and saying: It looks like there’s actually nobody in charge. We thought that there was somebody manning this ship. There isn’t. Apparently we’re gonna have to do this.
Were you at that first Lancaster Stands Up meeting? And also: How did you and your family wind up in Lancaster?
ISW: Oh, wow. OK. So I’ll answer the second question first, My grandmother — and actually I think this is a really important part of my story — my grandmother was born in Northern Georgia in 1921. My grandfather on my mother’s side from the Maryland area, they had a child in Washington, D.C., that was my mother, in 1948.
So she goes to college in New York. She does her grad school in Philly, and moves to Lancaster. And as is fairly common in academia, I think when she got here, her plan was to settle in long enough to get tenure, and then trade up to a more prestigious, if you will, institution.
ISW: But she ended up sticking around at Millersville, which is one of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities, because she found that there was a lot of opportunity for her to do for Black students and the population of African American students and Latino students at Millersville was starting to increase in the 80s when she got here.
And so she had been in Lancaster since the mid 80s. And she taught at Millersville for 35 years, actually right up until her passing. She passed away in December of 2018 and was still advising students in October. And so that’s how she got here.
And, of course, I was born and raised here in Lancaster.
Now, I was at that first Lancaster Stands Up meeting in the Southern Market Center which is where I met a lot of people that I think maybe even to the nationwide progressive set are fairly well known, like your Jonathan Smuckers. But really just got to talk to folks — like Ryan, if you were in the room, you might not have predicted what Lancaster Stands Up would come to be several years later. There were folks off the street, folks from nonprofits, young folks, older folks, union folks, several people from Church World Service, which is an international nonprofit that does refugee resettlement, as well as providing other services to refugees and immigrants, just the staffers and folks from there, because they were so terrified of the rising anti-immigrant rhetoric that they’d been hearing.
Ryan, I believe a lot actually, in the power of shared grief to move us into action. That was absolutely a space of shared grief and fear. And it has really been to our collective benefit that we’ve been able to create a structure and an avenue to channel that, and that was sort of my meaningful intro to progressive organizing in Lancaster County.
RG: It’s unusual. Some Indivisibles, some local groups have survived and have built structures that have been able to channel the energy. Others have just kind of fallen apart through apathy; others, internecine fighting over the little tiny issues that arise inside these groups.
And so, how many people would you estimate were at that first meeting? And what was it that enabled you guys to turn it into so much local power?
ISW: Yeah, someone will tell me I’m wrong. But, I mean, at least 300. The room was full. And what’s interesting for me is actually that was the fall before I made the decision to run for city council. And I mean, I think Lancaster Stands Up has seen its conflicts internal to the organization, and certainly external to the organization, with the local Democratic committee.
But I would say over time, Ryan, it has absolutely been the relationships. I think there’s been a core of folks at Lancaster Stands Up which I would not necessarily include myself in who have kept an eye on the work and an eye on maintaining relationships and keeping us moving forward. You know, that thing — I work in nonprofits, Ryan — where someone sends you an email about an exciting opportunity, you send an email back saying yes, and then you don’t get a response for three weeks, and you sort of become disillusioned with it.?
ISW: There is a lot of work put in at LSU to make sure that that doesn’t happen. And I actually think this is a really powerful lesson for organizers is to keep people engaged regularly so that when the big stuff comes, there are groups of people who feel connected and engaged and have had practice and have had opportunities. So I would really chalk it up to that really relationship-based approach, because it’s not like the conflicts haven’t existed for Lancaster Stands Up, LSU has just been able to survive through it.
RG: And how have you seen the Republicans change? I mean, obviously, they were changing subtly, in a way that the Republican establishment wasn’t even quite noticing, even if Trump was. I guess you could say it starts with theTea Party, and then maybe Republicans thought they had a lid on it, that they could channel that energy to their own benefit. People like Boehner and Cantor found out in due time that that wasn’t the case that they were overwhelmed.
You almost have Dr. Oz this time, Trump’s candidate, overwhelmed by Kathy Barnette, surging at the very end; you have this extremist who won the gubernatorial race. So was Lancaster, did you notice it changing ahead of Trump’s election and helping to produce Trump, because Pennsylvania went for Trump? Or did Trump then kind of become a catalyst that lit up something in the Republicans and some right-wing independents there that wasn’t there before, or some combination? So how have you watched that element of Lancaster County develop since that first meeting late 2016?
ISW: Yeah, I’ll admit to some humility in the sense that I wasn’t really closely watching the county Republican committee before 2016, though, of course, we are well aware in in Lancaster City, the sort of blue-dot-in-a-red-sea phenomenon, that we live in a very conservative county with a strong evangelical Christian influence.
And so, since that meeting in 2016, and getting directly involved in politics and organizing, getting to see some of those things up close and personal in response to organizing on the left — and some of it is hardly surprising. But some of it, I’ll be honest, was particularly frightening to see.
So, for example, to find the number of folks from Lancaster County who live on streets that I recognized or go to churches that I can name who either went to or sent other people to the January 6 insurrection. And so I always feel a little privileged when I’m surprised.
But I will say, I want to make sure that when we talk about the evolution of the Lancaster County Republican Party since 2016, and I think there is a very strong Trump mindset and a very strong group of Trump-oriented folks who dominate the Republican Party, there have been a number of Republicans, both young Republicans and older Republicans, who in rejecting or pushing against some of the Trump-based leadership and the Trump-based energy in the local Republican Party, have either found themselves on the outs, like a local leader that Sam and I talked to for about an hour at a polling place yesterday, or put themselves on the outs and I’m thinking of two gentlemen who are township supervisors in East Lampeter Township, who, after January 6, renounced their participation in the Republican Party, and re-registered as independents, which actually lost the Republican Party control of that township board.
ISW: That being said, the Trump energy is very much here: the stop-the-steal, we-need-a-sixth-election-audit-for-an-election-that-happened-two-years-ago —
ISW: — it’s very present.
And we saw it up close and personal. Ryan, I don’t know if you are aware, our county commissioners here in Lancaster just voted for the second time to take away Lancaster County’s sole election dropbox.
RG: Hmm. Did not see that.
ISW: Yeah. So they took it away — it was installed during Covid — as an administrative action. And the ACLU sued the Lancaster County Board of Elections, which is composed of the county commissioners, and then they did an advertised meeting where they voted to remove the dropbox. And listening to people in that meeting on the Democrat side talk and on the Republican side, you heard very much a lot of this stop-the-steal narrative, the dropbox invites fraud of the kind that we saw in the 2020 election, and all of these sort of vague but impassioned gestures to falsified elections that is a big narrative in the Trump and post-Trump Republican Party. And so it’s very alive and well here.
Sorry for the long answer.
RG: Yeah, no. And it seems like watching from afar that the Pennsylvania State Legislature controlled by Republicans has been really fixated on what they call election integrity. Going back over the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, it seems to have mostly fueled Mastriano’s gubernatorial primary run. Is that accurate? And how much of that is this kind of authentic energy? And how much of it is these Republicans thinking that maybe if they can get Trump’s attention, then that’s their ticket to rising up the MAGA ranks?
ISW: Frankly, there is a lot of this, I hope senpai notices me energy in terms of local Republican officials toward Trump, where they do feel like there is almost this race to the bottom to watch both local and statewide Republican-electeds try to be the most like Trump, or the most associated with Trump, or take pictures at the Trump White House on the Rose lawn. And we’ve seen a lot of that.
In addition to that, I think it’s going to push some of our longer-standing Republican incumbents to the right. So if you picked up a copy of LNP, you would see that two incumbents have survived primaries from the right in their Republican districts from just straight up-and-down, stop-the-steal, insurrectionist candidates. So that energy is here. And I think a concern that a lot of folks in Lancaster County have is that that energy is going to push Republicans once seen as moderate and engageable into this election security stop-the-steal narrative to fend off these primaries. And that’s the race to the bottom that I think a lot of people are really worried about.
RG: And so while you were on city council, and I guess you’re still on city council.
ISW: Yes sir.
RG: The kind of movement, generally, Democrats, Lancaster Stands Up, Democrats broadly in Lancaster won this rather stunning victory in Manheim Township flipping a pretty conservative area Democrat.
RG: So how’d you pull that off? And then update me on where that is, because I hear it didn’t go so well.
ISW: Yeah, that’s another one I can’t take credit for.
All the credit, of course, goes to the folks organizing up there directly in Manheim Township.
Of course, Allison Troy, who was running that race, who was like a very relatable candidate, very good, talking to people at the doors and making people feel heard, and the organizing work of one P. D. Gantert, along with a lot of other folks, and I think it really goes to the organizing philosophy that what you do is you build relationships, and you reach people on their terms — you knock their doors, you text them, and you call them. And you do that in a broad-based way. And you don’t give up on really anybody. That is to say, you knock as many doors as possible, you knock Republican doors, you knock less likely or less frequently voting Democrat doors, and you knock your base, because you know that you need to turn out everyone, you know that you need to do voter education and persuasion and GOTV to win in these in these purple districts. And a lot of folks — Allison will tell you this herself — said that campaign wouldn’t win in Manheim Township, but it did, and it won big.
So, since then, in the most recent election, and I gotta acknowledge the sort of national tide of the stop-the-steel, and the anti-CRT, and the anti-trans rhetoric around schools, that really motivated and buoyed the Republicans in Manheim Township, both in their commissioner and in their school board races. I don’t want to pretend that the national trends don’t exist. And I don’t want to pretend that the narratives are not important. But I think also what we saw in that race was the state senator for that area, Ryan Aument, gave $50,000 to those municipal and school board races.
RG: To the Republican incumbent.
ISW: Yes. Sorry. The Republican incumbent, Ryan Aument, put $50,000 into those municipal and school races, our established Democratic leadership, our state representative county commissioner, our party, were not really prepared to throw down in Manheim Township in the same way and so we didn’t see that same level of funding for Democrats or even a really comparable level as to what Republicans were bringing, though the Democrats in Manheim Township tried very hard, and some of those races actually came down to a few 100 votes.
And I think this has a lot to do with the direction of the Democratic Party, not just here in Lancaster County, but all throughout Pennsylvania. And some of the tension, I think, between your Indivisible groups, your Pennsylvania Stands Up, your Lancaster Stands Up, and your more established Democratic committees. And as someone who exists and works in both worlds, the difference in that organizing philosophy and a you-are-your-sibling’s-keeper energy that I think progressive organizing groups have in the sense that like, yes, I am in this municipality, but I need to come to your neighboring municipality, because we’re all in this together, and we’re going to help you fundraise, and we’re going to help you knock doors, that sort of approach, I think, is going to become increasingly necessary. Because there is a lot that is happening in the Republicans favor right now. And so a scarcity mindset for Democrats is just not going to work. It’s not going to help us flip seats. And we’re going to find ourselves going backwards in ways that we really don’t want to, and that we really can’t afford to. And I think that Manheim Township is a key example of that.
RG: And I wonder if there’s some overlap there with the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic primary here. I’m curious for your take on this race.
Because you had one candidate, a congressman, Conor Lamb, from outside Pittsburgh, who actually gave up a House seat and it’s — you could tell me if you think I’m wrong — they call it a toss-up, but in this wave year, it probably ends up flipping.
RG: So he risks a safe Democratic seat, because he’s popular in that area, he would have won re-election.
RG: He runs for Senate and his strategy was clear. He’s like: I am going to crisscross the state, I’m going to meet with every Democratic official who will meet with me — which is all of them — and I’m going to meet with every Democratic county organization that I can find, and I’m going to rack up all of the organizations’ endorsements. And as a result of that, I’m going to win. That was his very clear path. And he was going to rely on some big money from the outside and some super PAC support, but, ultimately, his run was going to be through the party.
RG: And then you had John Fetterman, who, despite being lieutenant governor, doesn’t seem to have much of a warm relationship with the structures, if you want to call it that, of the old Democratic Party.
RG: And if you line up his endorsements against Conor Lamb’s, it’s page after page after page for Lamb and three people for Fetterman, and then you have Malcolm Kenyatta, kind of a rising star out of Philadelphia — state rep, I think?
ISW: That’s correct.
RG: Who I think surprised people by pulling as much as he did in the race, but without any name recognition around the state and without the kind of money to get that name recognition, he was always going to struggle, so it ended up becoming between Fetterman and Lamb. And what it revealed to me is that there isn’t much of a party. Every party endorsement across the state couldn’t do anything to stave off the wipeout. From the hospital, Fetterman beat him 2-1. It was called within 12 minutes of the polls closing.
RG: So what does that say about what’s left of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania? And what does that say about Fetterman’s Senate race and Democrats’ ability to hold it in 2024?
ISW: Ryan, I mean, your case of events is exactly right. Almost every Democratic official — I’m a member of the Democratic Party state committee in Pennsylvania — state committee members very nearly endorsed Conor Lamb. And so did the Lancaster County Dem. committee. There is a lot of this popularity among the Democratic establishment who see Conor Lamb, as being pragmatic, as having a plan, not being too extreme, and reaching moderate voters.
And I have to be honest — this thing has always frustrated me, because I’m of the mind that the swayable Republican or this large population of independents who are just looking for someone on the Democratic side to come out and be more reasonable than the Republicans, those populations just simply aren’t as large as we like to pretend that they are. And so that is a narrative that has influenced Democratic primaries. We’ve said over and over: Well, yes, he’s great with Democrats, and great with the base, and his policies are popular or her policies are popular, but we’re gonna go with this person, because they’re less likely to scare off Republicans. And I’m just not sure, frankly, that the math has worked out in general elections.
ISW: But more importantly than that, it does not feel or seem like Democratic voters were really listening to that message anymore.
And I’ll tell you: I talk to people at the doors all the time, Ryan. People say things like: I’m tired of all the bickering, I’m tired of all the infighting across party lines — and then they will turn right around and say: But I want a Democrat who is going to fight for these issues, fight for the right to vote —
ISW: — fight for the right to choose, and actually push back in a real way. And I think that if you talk to any voter long enough, you will discover some part of their political constellation that doesn’t make sense to you.
But I think that people want folks that they see as relatable and they want folks that they see as fighters who are going to push on policies that are going to make their lives better.
And so that’s a whole long, rambling way of saying: Honestly, probably, John Fetterman had so much name recognition and ID across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that anybody was going to struggle, but the strategy of just going to the Democratic establishment and expecting that to seal the rates up for you, my hope is that with this most recent PA Senate primary, that that’s dead. You’ve got to get out and make sure that you are reaching people.
And there’s also something that’s concerning there about what is the connection of local Democratic committees to their voters as well, because that’s supposed to be the relationship. The understanding is you reach the Democratic committee, and then the Democratic committee is doing the hard work of going out and reaching voters in individual neighborhoods and on individual blocks.
And so I think we’ve really got two questions: One, how valid is the sort of endorsement and the support of the Democratic establishment when detached from other things? And on a more local, on-the-ground, organizing level, how do we revive the I-go-and-I-knock-my-neighbors’-doors-for-the-candidate-and-I-do-it-every-week-and-I-talk-to-them-all-the-time energy that I think that the Democratic Party used to have, and certainly progressive organizers are very much about, but I think a lot of people around the state are feeling that that energy is missing, and they’re going different directions because of it.
RG: And what’s so fascinating to me about Fetterman’s total romp is that the only thing you could really find activists, like lefty activists in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and then Pennsylvania establishment figures across the state, agreeing on was this kind of skepticism of Fetterman. I don’t wanna say hostility — some of it was hostility — but in general, kind of a skepticism.
What is it about Fetterman that rubbed so many people the wrong way yet still enabled him to win this like absolute landslide victory?
And we can move into Summer Lee who appears to have won her race against Steve Irwin after building her own kind of big organization in Pittsburgh. But there seemed to be no love lost between that organization and Fetterman. And so from an outside perspective, it’s like: What’s going on here? This guy seems okay. Is he kind of a jerk in person? Or like what are we not seeing from the outside?
ISW: I’ve met John Fetterman several times. He’s come to Lancaster County a number of times. Obviously he was in a hospital here in Lancaster County.
The first time I met him it was at a state committee dinner gala four or five years ago — everybody’s in a suit. Some of the ladies are in gowns. And John Fetterman is in like a Guy Fieri, old-head-from-the-barbershop shirt, shorts, and sneakers. And I know that that’s very much a part of his image. And I think that that resonates with a lot of people. And it makes a lot of people feel close to him. And he gives the impression that he is saying what he means at all times. And he’s straightforward.
And you know what John Fetterman likes to do? John likes to show up. And I think when you see that a lot, and what I mean is that I’m not evaluating his presence on the ground, in the nitty gritty, with the communities he’s represented and been a part of, but part of the John Fetterman narrative is: Oh, John’s at this union rally. He’s supporting folks here. He’s over here in Braddock. He’s over here. And shaking things up and coming out openly and strongly on things like the right to choose, on the minimum wage, union way of life, legal marijuana. And I think that appeals to a lot of folks.
I will also say, and this is not a knock on John Fetterman, this is just reality, to cultivate that very casual, I-can-wear-a-hoodie-wherever-I-want image, there’s a little white privilege there. And privilege isn’t like a layer of analysis that I particularly enjoy. But I think I have to say, like, anytime I talk about John, I need to say that like a Black candidate —
RG: Hmm. Correct.
ISW: Could not reach this level of notoriety and success in this America, just walking around wearing a hoodie and sneakers.
RG: I don’t think that’s a controversial statement at all. [Laughs.]
RG: And speaking of that, there was an analysis that I saw this morning, it was interesting, that showed him doing quite well in Black precincts around the state. And there had been a lot of warnings from the Conor Lamb campaign and from Kenyatta as well that that was not going to be the case, particularly because of this 2013 incident where he chased down a Black jogger.
RG: And the only dispute is whether he pointed the shotgun at the jogger or held the shotgun up. Either way he detained the young man with a shotgun saying that he had heard gunshots.
Now people say that, yes, they did hear either gunshots or fireworks. That part is true. He held the guy until the police showed up. And the police were like: What are you doing? This is a jogger. Let the man go.
Fetterman also has said he didn’t know that the person was Black, which I don’t quite understand how you would not know that. Because that’s not something you need to see ID for you know, and that incident has dogged him each time he’s tried to rise in politics, but he seems to have overcome it, particularly in these bBack precincts. What’s your read on that incident and how that will just play politically going forward for him?
I mean, my read as a person on that incident is like: Don’t follow people with guns. Don’t follow joggers with guns —
RG: Yeah. That seems like a good rule of life.
ISW: Like, don’t do that.
And I think part of the recollection of the incident is that he was wearing maybe sort of like a balaclava-type mask to keep his space warm, and maybe gloves, and so maybe that’s part of the claim that he could not immediately identify this person’s race.
And I think about that in terms of, of course, Ahmaud Arbery, and it instills this kind of fear in me about — with Buffalo as a context, most recently — Black people just being able to live, go to the grocery store, go for a run, be in public spaces. And I think a lot of those things, the fear of the inability to do that, motivated a lot of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But I’ll tell you, when I talk to people — white, Black — about John Fetterman, fewer people have heard about that incident than I think we think. I think that there is a way of, you consume a lot of politics —
ISW: — and you get to thinking that certain things are very common knowledge. But I think there’s sort of a both-sides thing happening. And I’ll tell you, it’s not like every other Black voter is aware of this. And so again, we come back to a mayor of an African-American community, able to approach and talk to Black people and, again, good on policies that are popular with Black folks, with working class white folks, etc., etc. So it’s not surprising to me that he’s popular in African-American communities, because John Fetterman is a household name.
ISW: And as much as some folks have tried to make it, the jogger incident is not a household topic of conversation. The reach isn’t the same level on those two topics.
RG: And I wonder if Republicans will have a hard time exploiting it in the general election for the simple fact that a good chunk of their base will hear that story and be like: Well, good for him.
It won’t land with a lot of Republican voters across Pennsylvania, I would think.
ISW: Right. But I don’t think they’re going to try to get it to land with Republican voters. I think their goal is to try to get it to depress Black turnout.
RG: Mhmm. Right. Cede Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with it.
ISW: Yeah, exactly. This is the thing: When we look at a Kathy Barnette, when we look at a Candace Owens, we can see pretty clearly that the way that Republicans engage with the Black community or sort of deploy their Black surrogates, associates, and spokespersons is really to either depress Black turnout, or to sort of fulfill a white idea of what Black people should be. You’ve never seen Candace Owens barnstorming Black churches in the South for Republican candidates, because that’s not her job narratively. They’re not trying to turn up Black turnout for Republicans, it’s just not a goal that they have.
So I think Republicans are going to have a hard time weaponizing that in the general election, because there are too many really strong counter-narratives against the Republicans on guns. And if John’s team has some good comms people, some great comms people, like for example I have in Savannah, they are going to walk him out of that narratively like it is an open paper bag and redirect to issues of gun safety, community investment, affordable housing, etc., etc. That is absolutely what Sav would have me do, if I were John, and so it’s fairly logical for me to see how he gets out of that and back to his issues.
RG: And so how does Summer Lee fit into this rising energy that we’ve seen in Pennsylvania on the left?
ISW: I love the way that you framed that question because I don’t really think Summer Lee fits in as much as she sort of typifies it, right?
RG: Mhmm. Mhmm.
ISW: Especially in Western PA, the number of people who are rallying around her as an individual, but her energy and her approach, and the level of being unapologetic.
And one of the things that I love — and as we know, Republican-funded super PACs dumped millions of dollars into that race. I’ll tell you, Ryan, I have gotten sick and tired of watching progressives sort of cower from the establishment and try not to offend them too much to what we see among progressives all across the state — Pittsburgh, Philly, everywhere — naming this corporate PAC money that is attempting to influence our elections, naming its sources, naming why it’s bad for our elections and bad for our communities. This is one of the most powerful things that progressives can do. If we are organizing to reach people at the doors, in the communities, and we can get to people, and then we’re naming what the violation of our shared values is, and what we’re going to do instead of that, I think that’s powerful for people. And I’m pretty well convinced that we’re going to see in Summer Lee’s race that that will overcome multiple millions of dollars of spending.
RG: I also wanted to talk to you about your agenda when you get to Harrisburg. You’ve been, on the council and also in your professional life, big into housing. And I really think that housing has become the central crisis facing American society at this point. It’s the thing that is driving so many of the other crises — that if you didn’t own a home by the time the music stopped, you’re just — I don’t want to say screwed, because not everybody is screwed — but you’re so far behind the eight ball at this point. Housing prices are just climbing, and climbing, and climbing — far, far outpacing wages — and sucking all of your income in.
What’s that been like in Lancaster? When I visited there, I noticed there’s some gentrification going on, just like there is across the world. It’s not even unique to the United States. All cities, large and small, are starting to look identical all over the world. You’re starting to see it in Lancaster, as well.
RG: What’s the housing situation like there? And what about that made you decide that you needed to get into Harrisburg?
ISW: Yes, Ryan, you are absolutely right. And that situation applies to Lancaster as much as anywhere else.
Housing prices are climbing rapidly. And, look, as much as it is because of small-level policy decisions, we’ve also made a fundamental, philosophical mistake, as both global and local economies, and that’s this: We’ve mistaken the first, highest, and best use of a home. And I don’t want to oversimplify it. But the first, highest, and best use of a home is to house human beings, and be a space from which folks can build community outward and connect to others. And when we treat it as a stock or a bond, as a financial instrument, of course, it’s going to spiral up and boom and bust and crash. And with this particular asset or financial instrument, when it booms, busts, crashes, even when it spirals up, it has the effect of making people unhoused by the thousands or even the millions at a time. And so we have to fundamentally re-approach what we think that a home is for.
There’s a young woman who is featured heavily, both in my motivation for running my campaign, but has also come to a number of events at the campaign. For example, she came with us to a rally for State Sen. Nikil Saval’s Whole-Home Repairs, right here in Lancaster City — which, if you’re wondering what part of my housing platform will be, it will be enthusiastically supporting and fighting for that bill in particular. But this young woman, she’s doing the things, right? Like, if you listen to what we’re told is the contract of America: She’s working two jobs, she’s raising her kids, she’s sending them to school, but the apartment that she’s living in keeps getting more expensive and keeps getting lower and lower quality — I’m talking about black mold, I’m talking about falling apart appliances. And so the contract is not being held up.
And that’s part of how we approach the work that we do. If we see a problem once, we assume that it’s being reproduced throughout our community. Thousands of people’s families are experiencing the same thing in Lancaster. They are seeing a lot of the development, a lot of the new institutions that folks rave about, and the way that they’re understanding that, because they are Black, or brown, or working class, is that not only will they not be included in the come-up, but that somebody else’s come-up will push them out of their communities and put them down. And there’s so much invested in doing exactly that, that you know, I think their fears are founded.
Last Tuesday, council in the City of Lancaster, we took action to restrict the number of short-term rentals, Airbnbs, in Lancaster City, which are known in metros all across the U.S. to drive up housing prices —
ISW: — and to crowd out local residents in the competition for both homeownership and rentals. And just listening to people come and talk about how this upset them.
Of course, there were folks who came — and really a lot of them who said: This is what we need, or in fact, this is not enough action. But I listened to a gentleman come to the podium and describe himself; he said he is proudly part of the first gentrification of the neighborhood in Lancaster City. He’s part of the first gentrification of Old Town. And he said that very proudly. And folks talked about how the council was attacking their businesses and their dreams of owning Airbnbs. And that’s how we think of housing in America, Ryan.
ISW: As primarily serving folks whose dream it is to become wealthy through land holding, or to own a certain kind of business. That is more important than any persons who might be displaced or disconnected from their family home, or an opportunity to build any kind of generational wealth or community. Those things are small potatoes in American society, when compared to, again, somebody’s dream, I guess, of owning a series of Airbnbs.
RG: I stayed in an Airbnb when I went to visit a couple years ago.
RG: And I remember thinking — and Lancaster is a beautiful city with row houses, large swaths of the town, no offense, run down —
RG: But you can see the beauty that was there. Which is a very Pennsylvania vibe. And you can see the beauty that very easily could be there with a little bit of turnaround. And I remember thinking: This is a lovely little row house that we’re staying in here. It should not be an Airbnb, I remember thinking that we should be in a hotel. Like, there should be a family who lives in Lancaster, this place that we’re in right now.
We enjoyed ourselves. And we brought the whole family up. But I’m glad you did that, because it did feel like it was holding the neighborhood back. Because I wasn’t gonna paint the house on the front. You know, we’re in and we’re out.
My community, where I live in southeast Lancaster City. There was a study done in 2009, so this is years and years ago, by the local college at Franklin & Marshall, and what that study bore out was that about $20 million left Southeast Lancaster City every year in rents to landlords and property management companies who were not a part of that community, many of whom were not in the city or county at all.
And so the way that I talk to people about this here in Lancaster, when I talk to my neighbors, I say: How could we make this community different if we had $20 million more every year to invest in this community? What if your stuff was not being sent elsewhere — Portland, Maine; Florida; Philadelphia, what have you — but that money was being invested right here in the community every time you paid your rent or made a repair, etc., etc.? And I mean, even that goes a little bit into the narratives of capital. But the core idea, Ryan, is this: That communities and neighborhoods are strongest when they can bond together and exercise their resources and relationships together. And Airbnbs, by definition, interfere with that. And they make no bones or claims that they do anything but that, because they are primarily for tourists and primarily for the development of some person’s wealth. And so few of them are owned by people who live in Lancaster City, much less in the community that they’re owned in.
I’ll tell you, of the people that came to that meeting, we had a number of folks who started their comments: Well, I don’t live in the city, but I’m a taxpayer. I don’t live in the city, but I own several businesses.
And what I’m hearing is: OK, you have a different level of stake, this is your opportunity to make money. And I simply can’t weigh that higher than somebody’s opportunity to have a home, live, raise a child.
RG: And so, you and I were talking earlier about this system that the Pennsylvania legislature has set up that classifies places like Lancaster as literally, what? They call it a third-class city?
ISW: A city “of the third class.” Which I personally resent.
RG: [Laughs.] It’s deeply resentful.
RG: But what it means is that, basically, they’re going to tell you how they run the city. There are a lot of peons to local control.
But as we know, going back to pre-Civil War days, that’s always been instrumental. That’s not a serious kind of principle that the right in this country has ever felt.
RG: And if it goes against their vision, then they toss that instrument right out. And so it sounds to me that Lancaster City Council can’t do much when it comes to governing itself, because the legislature is the one that kind of sets guardrails around that. Are there any Republicans who represent these kinds of towns that will be able to team up with you to get this change? Or do you think Democrats just have to take over because now local control is becoming reversed under the kind of DeSantis model of finding school boards that are either doing something crazy or doing something that they can call crazy, getting it on Fox News, and then scaring people? And then saying, well obviously we can’t allow local control, because look what they’re gonna do, they’re gonna groom children, and turn them into like anti racists — you know the whole drill, you know better than I do living in Lancaster County.
So, where does that go from here?
ISW: Yeah. OK. So you said a lot there. And I’m sitting here feeling like: OK, I want to make sure that I respond to each of that.
So first and foremost, let me reframe: I actually think that Lancaster City Council can do a lot and has done a lot. We have record investments in affordable housing. We decriminalized marijuana in the city of Lancaster, passed a new use-of-force policy for our police, and initiated a lead hazard remediation program, which has gotten led out of 300 households in Lancaster City. And we’re going back to do another 400 more.
The way I’d frame it is: Lancaster City Council — there are things that we can absolutely do, and we’re doing them — but we could do so much more if Harrisburg would let us, would give us the respect of letting us and our people govern ourselves.
I’ll give you a good example. We’ve been talking about the fight for $15 forever, though, of course, even in Lancaster County, a living wage for a single individual is $16 now. But if we can set that briefly aside, Lancaster City can’t set its own minimum wage policy. We were told: Harrisburg won’t allow that.
You want to talk about an easy, bipartisan political when? How about a property-tax break for seniors. But when we tried to do that, what we were told was that Harrisburg won’t let municipalities like ours deliver that for our folks.
Over and over we are running into this. And I think one of the ways that most reaches people, like when I go to explain this to people at the doors, for example. I’m saying: Look, Harrisburg is not even just saying what laws we can pass, it’s also saying you really can only raise revenue in a way that you can adjust through property taxes. So when we’re trying to serve you better as a city, we are raising your taxes to do that. And we’re making it even harder to own a home. We’re making you pick between affordable homeownership, for example, and the quality of your child’s school.
And that’s just a vicious cycle that Harrisburg has Lancaster and the other 53 third-class cities across the Commonwealth trapped in, and that’s 1.3 million Pennsylvanians who just can’t even be effectively represented by their local legislators.
And, yes, to answer your final question, Ryan, I do think that there is bipartisan energy to make some of these changes. But I don’t think it exists with the Republican leadership. And I’ll be honest, I think it is instrumental, just as you described it; part of the advantage of starving cities of local control and actual efficacy is that many of the cities are represented by Democrats, and they are communities of color, and it serves the Republicans in Harrisburg to make those communities more dysfunctional. And so one of the things that our campaign has been a mechanism of talking about how to push back against that.
RG: Well, Izzy, best of luck in pulling that off in Harrisburg. And congrats again on your victory.
ISW: Thank you. Thank you so much.
I’m really honored. And all the credit really has to go out to this community. If I can take my closing seconds to brag —
RG: Brag away.
ISW: — the team knocked thousands of doors, raised thousands of dollars, sent thousands of texts, made thousands of calls. And, again, I think it comes back to the philosophy of organizing that progressives have, and that is that our work is fundamentally about relationships. And I think that that’s how we won.
And we didn’t just skate by. We won in a way that says the people of H.D. 49 — even though they are diverse, racially, economically, geographically — are looking for a change and looking for a team that is going to fight for our values. And I’m just honored that they are trusting our team to do that.
RG: Well, best of luck.
ISW: Thank you so much, Ryan.
[Deconstructed credits music.]
RG: That was Izzy Smith Wade-El, and that’s our show.
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