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A Tiny State-Legislature Race That Represents the Future of the Democratic Party

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Summer Lee, a candidate for state representative in southwestern Pennsylvania, runs her campaign out of Milton’s Top Notch Hair Salon, in downtown Braddock. On a recent Saturday morning, three dozen volunteers, most of them bearded, white millennials, were eating bagels and studying canvassing packets, preparing to go door-to-door to convince residents to vote for Lee. Among them was Arielle Cohen, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution,” and Adam Shuck—“like corn or oysters”—who co-chair the Democratic Socialists of America in Pittsburgh, which endorsed Lee at the end of last year. If she wins, Lee will be the first African-American woman elected to the state legislature from southwestern Pennsylvania. But this race is also notable for the way that it pits Lee, who is thirty years old, against Paul Costa, a popular state representative who has been in office for nineteen years and is a member of a Democratic dynasty around Pittsburgh. (One of his brothers, Jay, is a state senator; another, Guy, is a city official; and his cousin, Dom, is a state representative.)

Here in this tiny race is the larger, existential battle over the future of the Democratic Party that is taking place across the country. Will it be centrist, establishment candidates who lead the much-anticipated “blue wave,” or will progressive insurgents sweep them aside? In Texas, Tennessee, California, and Hawaii, a Democratic electorate is pushing back against the Democratic machine’s support of the old guard. Many, like Lee, see the Democratic Party’s faith in centrists, like Costa, as having already failed; the increasingly radical right means that there’s no meaningful middle in which to meet.

The D.S.A., which calls itself not a political party but a nonprofit organization, has been backing candidates that it perceives to be a challenge to the Democratic establishment, and has been rapidly gaining members nationwide. The Pittsburgh D.S.A. chapter began with seven members in November, 2017, and now boasts five hundred and ten. In Pittsburgh, the D.S.A. has supported three candidates who are running against a member of the Costa family. (Sara Innamorato, who lost her father to opioid addiction, is running against Dom Costa in the Twenty-first District.) Lee, like other activists, is fashioning her platform after Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, in which he called for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” (The 1968 movement is undergoing


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