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Why Is AIPAC Spending Millions to Beat Summer Lee, a Democratic Socialist Running for Congress in PA?

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With Democrats at risk of losing both the House and Senate in Tuesday’s midterms, we speak with Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid about the progressives favored to win congressional seats. Texas city councilmember and former labor organizer Greg Casar, Illinois state Representative Delia Ramirez and Pennsylvania community organizer Summer Lee have all been endorsed by Justice Democrats, who are best known for helping catapult members of the Squad to victory in 2018. “I think that we’ll continue to see these progressives expand the horizon on issues that working-class communities care about,” says Shahid, who critiques the Democratic Party for weak messaging on the economy. Shahid also discusses how the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC is pouring money into defeating progressive candidates like Summer Lee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is the final full day of campaigning before the midterm elections that will determine which party will control the House and Senate. We begin today’s show looking at a number of progressives who could win congressional seats on Tuesday.

In Texas, the former labor organizer and Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar is running in a district that stretches from San Antonio to Austin.

In Illinois, Democrat Delia Ramirez is running in the newly redrawn 3rd District. She’s a progressive state representative, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants.

And in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, state Representative Summer Lee, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is running on the Democratic ticket to replace the retiring longtime congressman, Democrat Mike Doyle. The race has confused many voters, because Lee’s Republican opponent has the same name as the Democratic lawmaker who is retiring: Mike Doyle. And his latest ad doesn’t say he’s a Republican, but says “a name you can trust.” AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has spent millions of dollars trying to defeat Summer Lee. The group’s political action committee, the United Democracy Project, spent close to $3 million during the primary against Lee, has now spent over $680,000 during the general election on TV ads and mailings to attack her. Over the weekend, Summer Lee held a major rally in Pittsburgh to get out the vote.

REP. SUMMER LEE: When you’re out there knocking on the door and someone asks you, “Well, what about public safety?” I want you to tell them this: Who do you truly believe cares about public safety? The party of guns, guns and more guns? Or the party of public education, the party of healthcare, the party of mental healthcare, the party of social services, the party of wraparound services, the party of public libraries, the parties of youth and child services — the party that knows that if we actually care about public safety, then we need to care about the public? That means that we need to care about the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Speakers at the Pittsburgh rally Sunday for Summer Lee included Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Brothers and sisters, we have a corrupt political system which is enabling billionaires to buy elections, and that is what Summer is up against right this moment. As we speak, you’ve got a billionaire-funded super PAC putting in over a million dollars trying to defeat Summer. And we’re seeing this all over this country: When progressives come up and stand with working people, the big money interests try to defeat them. And I know, especially after this campaign, at the very top of Summer’s list of to-do things is going to be to overturn this damn Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Summer Lee and other progressives running on Tuesday, we’re joined by Waleed Shahid. He’s spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which has endorsed Summer Lee. Waleed is a former senior adviser for the campaigns of Jamaal Bowman here in New York, as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Waleed. So, let’s begin actually with the story of the name. It’s all in a name. You have Summer Lee versus Mike Doyle, who just announced again, held a news conference to say, basically, “Guys, as I told you last year, I am retiring, and the man who is running on the Republican line is not me,” because reports were repeatedly that when voters were asked who they’re voting for, whether or not they like Summer Lee, they would say, “I’m not going to abandon Mike Doyle.” Can you talk about —

WALEED SHAHID: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — the significance? Do you think the Republicans chose him for his name?

WALEED SHAHID: You know, there’s been a lot of whispers in Pittsburgh that, you know, this Mike Doyle, the Republican Mike Doyle, was chosen as the Republican nominee because it would be a deliberate confusion of voters. You know, in American elections, name recognition is the name of the game. And so, when you have familiarity with a certain name, that really drives voters to choose to elect that candidate. And the fact that nowhere on most of his literature, on his campaign website, on his ads, does it mention that Mike Doyle, the current candidate, is a Republican, it seems that they are deliberately trying to mislead voters to think that he is the former — or, the retiring congressman, the Democrat Mike Doyle. And we’ve also heard from voters on the ground that some of them, you know, regret that they voted for the Republican Mike Doyle when they thought they were voting for the Democrat in some of the early voting.

And so, we are trying to do whatever we can at Justice Democrats and with Summer Lee’s campaign to get out the information and the right information that this is a Republican who wants to cut your Social Security, attack a woman’s right to choose, and do absolutely nothing about cost-of-living and inflation costs.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it is painful, but Mike Doyle is using the same name recognition strategy employed by Eddie Murphy’s character, a con artist —

WALEED SHAHID: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — to get elected to Congress in the 1992 film The Distinguished Gentleman.

WALEED SHAHID: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But let’s talk about — more about what Summer Lee represents, why Bernie Sanders was in Pittsburgh to rally with her yesterday, and also the significance of AIPAC, the role that it’s playing. While AIPAC has the word ”PAC” in it, in fact, for years it hasn’t been a PAC in the sense of contributing in this way, a super PAC, but now it’s changed its strategy. And talk about the significance of this.

WALEED SHAHID: Yeah, I think that AIPAC has determined that they are losing ground with the Democratic Party, with a younger generation of Democrats who want to be more even-handed when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the politicians that AIPAC has usually been around. And so, AIPAC has decided this year, after seeing the election of more Justice Democrats and members of the Squad to office, that they were going to get involved in Democratic primaries and also back some Republicans. So they have endorsed over 100 Republicans who voted to overturn the election of Joe Biden, and then got involved in a significant number of Democratic primaries this year in order to defeat Justice Democrats and other progressives. And so, in Summer Lee’s race, they’ve spent, between the primary and the general, millions of dollars to defeat her and elect candidates who voters are pretty unfamiliar with in Pittsburgh.

And I think, you know, observers and analysts have said that it really tracks the kind of way that groups like the NRA went from a bipartisan group to a pretty extreme right-wing group over time, once they started to lose ground with Democrats and especially a younger generation of Democrats. And I think AIPAC is heading in that trajectory, as well, where they are no longer a bipartisan organization but mostly a right-wing organization that is increasingly going to be out of touch with Democratic Party values and Democratic Party politicians. And so, we are seeing them make this major effort to recover extreme anti-Palestinian sentiments within the Democratic Party, but I do think they are losing a generational battle here.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of the Democratic establishment, in these last days, you have everyone from first lady Jill Biden to the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro coming out for Summer Lee. And the significance of this and the impact she can have on the party?

WALEED SHAHID: Yeah, I think Summer Lee, you know, she represents the Occupy generation, the Black Lives Matter generation, the DREAMer generation. And, like, as a millennial progressive Black woman, she is going to take those social movements into office and be part of a big tent Democratic Party coalition that includes people who might disagree with her on some things.

But what AIPAC has done is put people like Fetterman and Shapiro and even Barack Obama in a place where they have to decide to either back a Democrat who’s running against a Republican or back an AIPAC-endorsed candidate. And I think as AIPAC continues to make those polarized choices for members of the Democratic Party who are maybe more centrist or from the establishment, they’re going to increasingly lose ground by presenting a stark choice like that.

And so, you know, the Justice Democrats recruited Summer a year ago to run for the seat. People in Pittsburgh know her. She got involved in politics and took on the local Democratic Party establishment and Republicans. She flipped a Trump — a seat that Trump won. And that was the reason we backed her over a year ago —

AMY GOODMAN: In state Legislature.

WALEED SHAHID: — to run for the seat, because she’s — yeah, and so —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to —

WALEED SHAHID: And she — yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: — another comment of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who was stumping for her a while ago, as well.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Now, the other thing that would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic is that these ads, paid for by AIPAC, are attacking Summer because she is not a loyal enough Democrat. Well, what you should know is that this organization is funding over a hundred Republican candidates or endorsing —

AUDIENCE: [booing]

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: So, here you have a super PAC saying she’s not a loyal Democrat, while they’re endorsing a hundred — over a hundred Republicans, including many who even refuse to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Bernie Sanders. Waleed, I want to expand the discussion to other Justice Democrats-supported candidates, like Greg Casar in Austin, as well as Maxwell Frost. Can you talk about them?

WALEED SHAHID: Yeah, I think these are candidates who represent the future of the Democratic Party. And, you know, as this generation comes into political age, they will elect more candidates who think and look like them. And so, I think the future of the Democratic Party looks a lot more like Greg Casar and Summer Lee and people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. And so, those candidates who you just mentioned had very competitive primaries where they beat back special interest groups and super PACs, and I think they’ll expand the ranks of the Progressive Caucus in Washington and also expand the ranks of the Squad in order to hold the Democratic Party accountable to voters, and not corporate donors, and deliver results for our working-class communities.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s an interesting In These Times piece, “Don’t Look Now But Progressives Are About to Expand Their Ranks in Congress.” Do you see this happening?

WALEED SHAHID: Yeah, I think that, you know, in 2018, when Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won their primaries, we saw that they were able to use their new platforms to advocate for things like canceling student debt and the Green New Deal. And when these new members enter Congress, I think that we’ll continue to see these progressives expand the horizon on issues that working-class communities care about, and bring that to the Democratic Party establishment leadership in a way that will have a really dramatic effect, in the same way that the Green New Deal, parts of it, made it into the Inflation Reduction Act; in the way that Ayanna Pressley’s advocacy and the Squad’s advocacy for canceling education debt, some of that, made it into Biden’s executive order in which he canceled $10,000 to $20,000 of student debt. I think Greg Casar and Summer Lee, you know, if they win, which I hope they do, that they will really bring these ideas from communities and from movements into the party.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, do you think the Democrats have succeeded or failed — I guess we will know much more tomorrow or the coming days — in their message? If you were in charge, how would you have crafted it? What do you think is most important for people to understand in this country in the choices they’re making?

WALEED SHAHID: Well, first of all, I really think it’s important for people to volunteer and vote and donate for Democrats heading into the Election Day tomorrow. But I also want to set reasonable expectations where I do not think the Democratic Party leadership and the campaigns — the campaign apparatus in Washington has effectively waged a message saying that Democrats are the party of the working class and Republicans are not. The number one concern for voters is inflation and cost of living, and I think Democrats were really caught flat-footed in a way that they only started really hammering or talking about the issue two or three weeks ago. And up until that point, a lot of Democrats were kind of saying, you know, “It’s a global phenomenon. There’s nothing we can do about it,” which I think does not land very well.

I would have liked to see the Democratic Party really center a message that connected the fight for democracy to inflation and pocketbook issues, something like the reason Republicans want to weaken and assault our democracy is that because they want to hand over power and wealth to their big corporate donors and Big Pharma and Big Oil so that they can continue to jack up prices as high as they want. And all the stuff that we hear right before the election about how there are caravans coming across the border, teachers are brainwashing kids into being LGBTQ, that Black Lives Matter is running the country — all of this is a distraction to scare voters, turn Americans against each other so that we don’t — we are distracted, and we don’t see Republicans picking our pockets and giving more power to their corporate donors who just want to jack up prices.

I think it was unfortunate that Joe Biden didn’t make that case in his big democracy speech, which I mostly agreed with, but I think, you know, democracy doesn’t put food on the table necessarily, or voters don’t understand how it does. And so, I think Democrats need to really paint the picture of if we have a weakened democracy, Republican — our number one tool to hold corporations accountable, which is our government, it’s severely weakened, and Democrats want to use the power of government to lower prices and give more power to working-class people.

AMY GOODMAN: Waleed Shahid, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for Justice Democrats.

Next up, it’s not only people that voters are voting for; there are many key initiatives on the ballot Tuesday. Five states have abortion-related ballot measures, for example. There’s also ballot measures on how we vote, on gun control, on marijuana. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Dancing and Fire” by Low. Drummer and vocalist Mimi Parker passed away this weekend at the age of 55 from ovarian cancer.

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