Summer Lee speaks at a press conference at the Kingsley Association in Larimer on April 11. Photo by Tony Norman.

When former state representative Summer Lee ran for and won the newly drawn 12th Congressional District seat last year, she became the first Black woman from Western Pennsylvania elected to represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The progressive Democrat had to overcome a truculent Democratic Party establishment here that has never truly embraced her, a vicious $1 million campaign by a super PAC that attempted to paint her as antisemitic and unqualified, and a well-funded Republican candidate who happened to have the same name as a beloved Democrat from the area — Mike Doyle.

Overcoming these obstacles turned out to be the 12 labors of Hercules for the Braddock-born Lee who, on top of everything else, had to endure conjecture from even friendly supporters that she was angling to become the newest member of “the Squad,” a progressive caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

The implication was that Lee was more interested in glamor and a bigger forum for constituent services than the often soul-deadening grist of actual lawmaking. But Lee’s interviews after she was sworn in — “Face the Nation,” a thoughtful interview on NPR and appearances on respected platforms like “Politico” — have done much to deepen admiration for her as a hard worker and thinker mere months into her first term. 

Last week, U.S. Rep Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, opened a constituent services center in East Liberty at 211 North Whitfield St. It is the first of many offices that will soon dot a congressional district that includes the Mon Valley and some eastern Allegheny and Westmoreland County suburbs. 

Lee knows that if she wants to pursue the interests of her constituents in Washington for years to come, she has to make herself as ubiquitous to voters in Sewickley, North Huntingdon, Murrysville, Hempfield, Jeannette and North Huntingdon as she is to voters in North Braddock and the East End. 

Lee speaking to the WPXI crew on April 11. Photo by Tony Norman.

On April 11, Lee participated in a press conference at the Kingsley Association in Larimer that included Rep. Sara Innamorato of the 21st District, Democratic state Sen. Lindsey Williams of the 38th District in Allegheny County and several environmental justice, climate and conservation advocates.

The lawmakers and community advocates took turns describing the scourge of “bomb trains” that run through densely populated communities including Pittsburgh every day. These trains are almost entirely unregulated, travel at dangerous speeds and carry deadly chemical and explosive cargo. 

The train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, in February was Exhibit A in demonstrating the need for federal legislation to force corporate players like Norfolk Southern to take the health and safety of communities it crisscrosses daily seriously.

Lee announced that she would co-sponsor the DERAIL Act that U.S. Rep Chris Deluzio, D-Aspinall, is proposing to address the danger of flammable train loads and the lack of corporate accountability allowed by the status quo.

A recent derailment on April 8 of an empty train car along West Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s Esplen neighborhood made it into many speakers’ comments as a cautionary tale we should be very vigilant about.

Everyone who spoke that morning agreed Pittsburgh had dodged a bullet, but the accident generated inevitable questions: What if that train had been top-heavy with chemicals and explosive materials like the train that derailed in East Palestine? 

What would happen if a “bomb train” the same size or bigger ran off the tracks in Pittsburgh? Would the resulting blast radius displace hundreds of thousands instead of the multiple hundreds now faced with the decision to stay in East Palestine or leave?

“Had that catastrophe happened here, there would be no doubt that the bomb train would have resulted in casualties,” Lee said, adding that the scale of death and destruction from chemical fires and clouds resulting from those fires would have been “unimaginable.”

When the hourlong press conference ended, Lee agreed to do a quick interview with a news crew from WPXI-11 in front of the Kingsley Association building. 

Many of the questions Lee was asked mirrored those she and her colleagues had addressed minutes earlier during the press conference, but Lee managed to sound fresh despite the redundancy. 

“We have to get at the heart of why corporations are able to put profits over safety, profits over communities, even as we are continuing to see the same patterns arising from these derailments,” Lee said before getting personal with the most existential observation of the morning.

“We rely on appropriate rules, appropriate standards and practices,” she said with the cadence of a preacher. “We rely on rail workers to be well taken care of, right, and working in a safe environment and we know that’s not the case.

“So, as someone who lives on the train tracks — my home is sitting next to the train tracks — it’s my neighbor — I think about it often. I think about it as I see Norfolk Southern trains roll past my house every day.

“I wonder what are they carrying on that train? If there is a disaster, how do I get out of the area? How do we get out of the blast area? There is no plan for that.”

And that is the secret of Summer Lee’s populist appeal in a nutshell. Few politicians can articulate what should be a sane national policy regarding ongoing corporate indifference and rail safety better than a working-class Black woman from Braddock who has made the unlikely leap to Congress in these polarized times.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

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Tony NormanColumnist & Co-host of In Other News

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.