One quick search on the Pennsylvania House of Representatives website, and you’ll see that it’s official.
Summer Lee is a Pa. state representative, representing the 34th District.
Out of 203 Pa. House members, Rep. Lee is one of eight African American women. She’s the first African American woman to represent a House district in Western Pennsylvania outside of the Pittsburgh city limits.
One year ago, Rep. Lee was holding her campaign kickoff event at Peppers ‘N’at in Braddock. Just about two weeks ago, Rep. Lee was holding another party—a victory party—at Goodfellas Restaurant in Swissvale, celebrating the hard work that had been done to make this day possible, while discussing to supporters how she’ll bring the concerns of her Mon Valley constituents to Harrisburg.
“Unite is next, and being a legislator, which to me are one and the same,” Rep. Lee told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview at the Jan. 3 event. “I have to learn the ropes, I have to legislate, but also I have to build up a pipeline of people that are supporting me here on the homefront, of creating a space where people who share my policies and who share my values have access to the space.”
The role of a state representative seems simple—present the best interests of their district; serve as political spokesperson for issues important to their district; be accountable to those they represent.
The reality is, it’s anything but simple. The art of acquiring allies within the House, figuring out ways to secure finances to jumpstart development or other efforts in a particular district, and dealing with non-supporters of policies within the state House is a complex puzzle that is full of pieces.
Representative Lee defeated longtime incumbent Paul Costa to be in this position. He had almost 20 years of service as House District 34 congressman. It’s conceivable to believe someone of his tenure is well-versed on how the political world operates in Harrisburg.
It’s just that the voters ultimately wanted a different voice in the Keystone State’s capital city. They turned to Rep. Lee, who won by a 68 to 32 percent margin in the May 2018 Democratic primary. Even the most astute political expert couldn’t have predicted a 34-point victory for Rep. Lee, a then 30-year-old who never previously held a public office seat.
“I don’t stop being an organizer, I don’t stop being an activist, I don’t stop being an advocate for the things that I care about,” Rep. Lee told the Courier.
Representative Lee’s down-to-earth, meet-you-where-you-are approach won over many people in her North Braddock, Braddock, Swissvale and neighboring communities. Fighting for the voiceless is her rallying cry.
“It’s not just about my campaign, it’s always been bigger than me,” Rep. Lee, a 2005 Woodland Hills High School graduate, said. “We want to take that momentum and make sure that we’re channeling that energy and transferring it into power, and we’re making sure that our communities are in power. And people who have never been represented in different places…and it’s not just race or gender, it’s also perspective—socioeconomics, poor folk, middle-class folk, all of those people, making sure that we have access.”
Representative Lee’s two-year term as leader of the 34th House district is now into its third week. She admits that she has much to learn about “how Harrisburg works,” and “how government works.” She told the Courier that government workings had her “shocked in a surprised way, and sometimes I’m shocked in a, ‘Man, I can’t believe it’s this way.’”
She’s looking forward to the challenges, but optimistic about the opportunities she has to uplift her communities in a tangible way.
“At the end of the day, each of the 203 (Pa. House members) of us represent 60,000 people, and 60,000 people who need to collectively use their voices to tell the people in Harrisburg what they want,” Rep. Lee said. “I need to show up for you, but I also need us to show up for me, because at the end of the day, I’m but our representative, so my strength is in our numbers, my strength is in our collective. If we have a robust collective, a robust electorate of people who are engaged and putting pressure on folk and creating narratives and breaking chains, then that’s what I go to Harrisburg with.”
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