The Democratic primary election to replace incumbent Congressman Mike Doyle is full of contrasts. The three-way race in the 12th congressional district features the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic party and a clash between Western Pennsylvania’s Democratic establishment and a wave of diverse young politicians that have gained momentum in recent years.
Three major candidates — establishment-backed lawyer Steve Irwin, progressive state Rep. Summer Lee and Pitt law professor Jerry Dickinson — will run for the party’s nomination on May 17.
The candidates’ political differences were limited in debates and media appearances, but the biographical differences stood out. Among them: The candidates each live in radically different financial realities.
Irwin, a 62-year-old white man from Squirrel Hill, is by far the wealthiest candidate in the race. He has between $4.4 million and $17.9 million in assets, according to a financial statement he filed with the US House, including multiple properties, bank accounts and pension plans. (Candidates disclose each asset as a range, not a specific amount.) He disclosed a salary of $240,000 from his law firm, Leech Tishman, and between $47,000 and $150,000 in income from the rent and investments.
Disclosures from the other two candidates each show more debt than assets, highlighted by student debt from a few law degrees.
Irwin’s campaign declined an interview request for this story. Lee said in an interview that his election would be a necessary departure from the norm of the US government.
“Our government is generally run by wealthy white men. It’s just a fact,” Lee said. “We see the wage gap widening between the super-ultra-rich and the average American. We see a federal government that has not moved on the minimum wage for over a decade. We see inequities in housing, we see a lack of investment in infrastructure…precisely because these people are simply not affected by it.
Lee, a 34-year-old man who was elected to the State House in an upset in 2018 and would be the first black congresswoman from western Pennsylvania, did not disclose any assets other than an undetermined payment from the state employee pension plan, and no income other than his $90,000 State House salary. She also owns a home in Swissvale, and public records show she bought it for $155,000 in 2021.
Dickinson, 35, said his background growing up in the foster care system has made him “wired to understand” the issues of poverty, homelessness and unemployment.
Dickinson, who unsuccessfully ran against Doyle in 2020 and would also go down in history as the area’s first black congressman, disclosed between $16,000 and $65,000 in retirement accounts and a salary of $165. 000 dollars to the University of Pittsburgh. He bought his Swissvale home in 2018 for $355,000.
The US Census Bureau estimates the median household income in Allegheny County to be around $62,000. All three candidates exceed this figure, but to varying degrees. (Most 12th District voters are in Allegheny County, although some are in Westmoreland County.)
Both Lee and Dickinson are examples of a major financial burden on the American public, according to the revelations. Each reported between $265,000 and $550,000 in undergraduate and law school debt.
If elected, Lee or Dickinson would join a relatively small proportion of lawmakers who have student loan debt — 11% of members of Congress, according to a OpenSecrets Report 2020. Both candidates said their personal student debt positions them well to legislate on the matter, and both said they support a blanket cancellation of student debt.
“The problem with student debt right now is that it’s holding people back,” Dickinson said. “We have young people who can’t buy a house, they have a hard time buying a car, they have a hard time getting credit…It’s important for members of Congress to know and understand how this affects people and have can -be a better idea of how to approach politics to change that.
Lee said student debt particularly affects black women and that it perpetuates a “cycle of poverty” rather than ensuring upward mobility. “The reality is if you’re a black girl from the Mon Valley who wants to be a lawyer, you have to go to college and you have to go to law school,” she said. “So the alternative is that we just can’t pursue our dreams.”
Irwin’s campaign website does not mention student debt; his issues page highlights job training programs for high school graduates, raising the minimum wage, protecting voting rights, improving public transit, and “moving toward a health care system.” single payer”.
Irwin’s assets are vast and make him the sole owner of this race. He owns three Squirrel Hill rental properties, collectively valued between $1 million and $2 million. He collects between $45,000 and $150,000 in rent a year, according to his disclosure. He also revealed a 50% stake in an Armstrong County golf course, the River Forest Country Club. He valued his stake in the club at between $1 million and $5 million.
If elected, Irwin’s wealth would not make him outstanding in Congress. Multiple analyzes have established that a majority of members are millionaires. estimated roll call in 2018 that the average wealth of a congressman was around $4.5 million, although much of the wealth is concentrated at the top.
A Republican has filed in this Democratic-leaning district – Mike Doyle of Plum Borough (no relation to the congressman of the same name). Doyle has yet to submit a disclosure form to the House, and his campaign has refused to provide it to PublicSource.
Two other candidates will appear on the Democratic ballot in May – Jeff Woodard and William Parker. Neither has submitted financial disclosures and both were questioned below the margin of error in a recent opinion poll.
The primaries for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, Pennsylvania governor, and state legislative seats are May 17. Voters must register to vote before May 2 and until May 10 for request a postal vote. Pennsylvania holds closed primaries, which means only Republicans and registered Democrats can participate.
This story has been verified by Katelyn Vue.
This story was co-published by PublicSource and Pittsburgh City Paper.
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