What wins by Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee mean for Democratic Socialists and Democrats

The women who toppled the Costa cousins will likely be unopposed in November.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Updated, 1:48 p.m.

At Hitchhiker Brewing in Sharpsburg, a packed room of supporters chanted “Sa-ra. Sa-ra.”

A first-time candidate endorsed by the local and national Democratic Socialists of America, Sara Innamorato toppled an incumbent opponent in the Democratic primary for District 21, state Rep. Dom Costa, a former Pittsburgh Police chief who hadn’t faced a primary challenger since 2008. Per unofficial county results, Innamorato earned 64 percent of the vote.

A little farther south, at Map Room Grill and Bar in Regent Square, Summer Lee emerged as the winner of the Democratic primary in District 34, with nearly 68 percent of the vote over current state Rep. Paul Costa, Dom’s distant cousin.

“It’s hard to take on a dynasty, but she did, and she won,” because Lee’s fighting for everyone, instead of just staying in her corner, said Dante Comans of Wilkinsburg, who attended her party.

These races are a “sign of the times,” with candidates who are not shying away from the word socialist and are taking on candidates who are “pretty much celebrities in Pittsburgh,” said Kristen Allen, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University.

“Across the country, people are frustrated with a broken system,” said Arielle Cohen, co-chair of DSA in Pittsburgh. “We are tired of machine politics, where people recognize your last name but don’t know what you stand for. Our candidates are standing up for us, demanding more for us.”

With the race summed up as DSA candidates vs. the Costa family establishment, these two state representative primary races attracted the local and national spotlight in the days leading up to Tuesday’s election.

Normally, races like these would get little or no attention from national media, said Sandi DiMola, an associate professor of political science at Carlow University. But in the current political climate, races like this can be an example of something bigger.

“The Democratic party is going through a sort of ‘identity’ crisis. If the party wants to win elections … the party has to decide whether it will be a party of more centrist candidates or whether it will strike out and support truly revolutionary candidates,” she said.

Margins were notable after unofficial totals were tallied Tuesday — roughly 28 percent for Innamorato and 36 percent for Lee — and bigger than Adam Shuck, Pittsburgh DSA co-chair, expected.

They are “terrific candidates” who share DSA’s values of “a critique of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy,” he said, adding that the results show voters have a real appetite for bold left policy and real change after the Costas ran unopposed in previous primaries.

But now that Innamorato and Lee secured spots on the November ballot, what comes next?

Eyes on November

The local DSA first met in November 2016 and endorsed two candidates who ultimately won in 2017 — Allegheny County Council member Anita Prizio and District Judge Mik Pappas.

Shuck praised Pappas for some of the changes he’s made like a no-cash bail policy, but his critics say Pappas’ “courtroom has become a revolving door,” KDKA reported. In January, Pappas also threatened to hold a defense attorney in contempt of court, despite not having the authority to do so, per the Post-Gazette.

This year, the local DSA chapter endorsed Innamorato, Lee and Kareem Kandil, who ran for state rep in District 30. They were also three of the nine candidates endorsed by the organization’s national electoral committee, Shuck said.

Kahdil lost in a three-way Democratic primary in a district in northeast Allegheny County that’s currently represented by Republican Hal English, who ran unopposed.

Innamorato and Lee, however, likely won’t face challengers in the November election. Neither race had candidates in the Republican primary, though Innamorato’s opponent, Dom Costa, launched a GOP write-in campaign in the 21st District. Unofficial vote totals indicate that the write-in effort was likely unsuccessful, but the Allegheny County Board of Elections has to certify and finalize votes.

But that doesn’t mean Shuck expects Innamorato and Lee to go to Harrisburg and pass bold, progressive legislation right away. The GOP controls the General Assembly, and there is still a lot of work to be done, not only in urban districts but in rural and suburban ones, too, he said.

Allen, the professor, agreed and said it will be difficult for Innamorato and Lee as left-wing lawmakers in a very Republican legislature. They are either going to stick to their guns or compromise, she said, adding that while she doesn’t expect them to have bills that make it to law, the pair of new lawmakers could influence discussion and amendments to bills.

DiMola added that while there likely won’t be immediate change, this election could have an impact on the number of women and minorities who run because they see DSA is willing to endorse them — and that they’re capable of winning.

It’s notable that the DSA is advancing women to the legislature, and there will likely be two young women serving in Harrisburg, where women’s representation is low, said Allyson Lowe, dean of the College of Leadership and Social Change at Carlow University.

Just by running — especially against the Costas — the DSA-endorsed candidates made a difference, Allen added.

What’s next for Democrats?

When it comes to political parties, however, “the single measure of a successful political party is the ability to get its candidates elected to office,” DiMola said, pointing out that it’s not a competition between two parties, but rather the DSA working to influence the political party.

That’s not new, added Allen, citing the split between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters in the 2016 presidential primary.

Winning elections isn’t the sole focus of the DSA, its leaders said, citing educational efforts and multiple working groups focused on topics like universal healthcare and labor issues. The DSA is about creating change, Shuck said.

“The end goal is not to make the Democratic party better,” he said, adding that the group hopes to push policy to the left and further DSA’s movement by supporting working people not corporate interests.

But in a two-party country, the best way to do that is run bold candidates within that system, Shuck said.

“We’ve have been excluding people for far too long from the electoral process,” Innamorato told The Incline from her election night event.

Lee echoed Innamorato in her victory speech, per WESA, saying, “If your politicians are not serving you, get rid of them. And if you don’t have anyone to vote for, run.”

Both Dom and Paul Costa congratulated their respective opponents on Tuesday night, the PG reported.

Paul Costa noted Lee’s ability to energize voters. “Their campaign did a lot better job of getting people out to vote,” he told the PG.

Dom Costa said in a statement to the newspaper that he will not stop “fighting for my friends and neighbors … My door is always open. I congratulate Ms. Innamorato on a hard-fought race and a spirited campaign.”

However, Nancy Mills, chairperson of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said the DSA-endorsed candidates ran as Democrats, so they are part of the party, and the committee will support them going into November and beyond. The committee endorsed Dom and Paul Costa in the primary.

There are all types of Democrats, and there’s room for multiple viewpoints to work for the common goal of electing officials who will represent everyone, she said.

“We’re growing. We have no identity crisis,” she said, adding that it’s an exciting time of change for the committee, which will move forward and send two women to Harrisburg to represent western Pa.

Established candidates can’t assume their seats are secure and that their records will speak for them, Lowe said, adding that Innamorato and Lee are part of a nationwide moment in the last two years where younger candidates and women have mobilized communities and been willing to put in the work of campaigning.

The Democratic Party needs to think about what kind of candidate comes next, even if that means finding a candidate to challenge these progressive opponents and be the face of the party. “It’s about electability.”

However, she added that it is about strategy, too, and candidates knowing where they can get a foothold. “I don’t think the DSA is going to sweep the state.”

Allen said it could be worthwhile for both groups if the DSA and the establishment work together. While they have different values, the DSA is mobilizing young millennials who are looking for another way into politics.

The Pittsburgh DSA membership “has increased, sometimes sharply, but pretty much steadily since November 2017,” Shuck said, adding that the chapter has more than 510 and members is in the top 15 chapters in the U.S.

DiMola said she expects membership will keep growing as the DSA shows it’s a powerful political force. “The DSA has a strong appeal to younger voters who have been disconnected from the traditional rhetoric of the Democratic Party.”

And it will be the electorate that sends the message to the party about the candidates they want, she said.

While Tuesday’s victory for Innamorato and Lee shows support for their progressive stances, Allen said it remains to be seen if the majority of voters want more progressive candidates or if they want more middle-of-the-road candidates like Conor Lamb.

Lamb, a Democrat, won a March special election in the former 18th U.S. Congressional District, where President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. On Tuesday, Lamb ran unopposed in the primary for the new 17th District and will face fellow U.S. Rep Keith Rothfus in November.

Celina Lopez, field director for Innamorato’s campaign, said the DSA endorsement didn’t come up often in conversations with voters. “People hear the word ‘socialist’ and get really scared. We focused on what Sara’s policies are.”

Lauren Lynch-Novakovic, field director for Lee’s campaign, added that voters were excited to have someone come to the door and ask about them. She said some who answered said Paul Costa had been there too long and “never knocked on my door.”

Either way, these races have brought a spotlight to local politics — which typically has low interest from the general public, even more so than national politics, Allen said. And to her, more attention to local politics is always a good thing.

Reporter/curator Colin Deppen and Food and Culture Editor Rossilynne Culgan contributed to this article.

A previous version of this article misspelled Kareem Kandil’s last name.