Not even fossil fuel money and ads could stop these anti-fracking powerhouses from winning their races. That is a great sign for Pennsylvania’s future.
Progressive champions Summer Lee and Danielle Friel Otten were part of a wave that shocked the Pennsylvania political establishment in 2018. So it was no surprise that those same establishment forces in their own party would team up with fossil fuel interests and fracking industry to try to unseat them this year.
The plan failed.
The fossil fuel industry hates when community leaders stand up to fight for their families. They know that when candidates run for office on positions that speak earnestly to the health and safety concerns of voters in their communities, those candidates win. Food & Water Action is very good at finding those candidates, training them how to run for office, and playing a key role in getting them to victory.
Lee and Friel Otten won overwhelming victories in the June primary, with another impressive surge by progressive candidates who will basically double the ranks of an emerging progressive wing in Harrisburg.
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Summer Lee Proves Pundits Wrong: Fracking Opponents Win Elections
Summer Lee has been a leader in her Braddock community in the fight against a new fracking well. Food & Water Action helped Summer Lee win her first election in 2018, when she became the first black woman from Allegheny County elected to the House. We knocked on thousands of doors and put out thousands of mailers educating voters about her as a first-time candidate.
During her 2018 campaign, and then afterwards, Summer was outspoken in opposing a fracking well proposed in the middle of her Mon Valley community. If allowed, this would make Summer’s neighborhood the most densely-populated community to be fracked in all of Pennsylvania– and the community already faces a legacy of environmental injustice. Lee’s bold advocacy ruffled feathers in the Democratic party establishment, which has been largely supportive of the drilling industry. The Allegheny County executive, an industry shill, backed her challenger, Chris Roland, who supports continued fracking activity in the area.
Defending Summer was a big priority for Food & Water Action. Our organizers on the ground worked directly with her campaign, through Food & Water Action PAC, to generate thousands of calls, texts, and other outreach to voters in her district. Meanwhile, a separate team worked to generate 2,500 handwritten letters to voters in Summer’s district, reminding them to cast their ballot for Summer. We also ran digital ads to get voters to apply to vote by mail, then sent a mailer to voters in the district explaining to them which polling places were open on election day (many were closed). The voters proved the pro-fossil fuel pundits wrong — the will to ban fracking is strong.
Dark Money Can’t Unseat Fierce Pipeline Fighter, Danielle Friel Otten
Danielle Friel Otten helped lead the movement in Chester County to oppose the dangerous Mariner East 2 pipeline, which was being built just 40 feet from her yard. When she saw that local political leaders were not standing up to the fossil fuel industry, she decided to challenge them directly. She unseated the Democratic incumbent and now represents State House District 155 in Harrisburg.
Friel Otten has been a thorn in the side of the fracking industry, so it was no surprise that the industry would try to unseat her. As the election approached, a SuperPAC spent over $130,000 to attack her. Building for America’s Future was running TV ads, expensive mailers, and even a mobile billboard. The industry also spent $168,000 in just three days before the election to oppose our ally Ginny Kerslake. Food & Water Action PAC helped expose this dark money assault, getting a front-page article published in the local newspaper.
We understood that even with ads up on cable news bashing Friel Otten, she was broadly popular, so we focused our efforts on getting Ginny Kerslake to victory. Working directly with the campaign through Food & Water Action PAC, we helped generate thousands of calls and text messages to voters on behalf of Ginny’s campaign. Ginny is a skilled seamstress, and had been making face masks for those who needed them during the height of the COVID pandemic. We first reached out to voters asking how they were doing, and if they needed Ginny to hand-sew them a mask. We were able to engage hundreds of voters in deep conversations about COVID and their community, many of which ended with a commitment to vote for Ginny.
The big money only got the fracking industry so far; Friel Otten cruised to victory, while Kerslake’s industry-backed opponent won that race. We believe she would have won had the industry not stepped in with their lies. The lesson is that the movement against the pipeline is so strong that the fossil fuel status quo is no longer acceptable. It’s more clear than ever that pro-pipeline Democrats have no place representing Pennsylvania communities.
Big Picture: Progressives Are Heading To Harrisburg
These are huge wins, but there’s a bigger electoral story in Pennsylvania: The progressive wing of the legislature in Harrisburg is growing.
Food & Water Action recognized in 2017 that we did not have the power needed to stop the fracking industry’s lobbyists in Harrisburg. That’s why we got involved in elections, notably starting Food & Water Action PAC with Pennsylvania sustainability pioneer Judy Wicks. Our victories in 2018 created a true progressive flank in the state legislature.
Those lawmakers were key to stopping Governor Wolf’s marquee infrastructure proposal, Restore PA, which seeks to invest billions of dollars in much-needed projects by selling bonds that would be backed by a new fracking tax. This would essentially guarantee decades of more drilling, not to mention the substantial financial risks associated with betting the state’s finances on the future of a failing industry. These leaders also stood firm against HB 1100, a bill that sought to give massive subsidies and tax breaks to the petrochemical and fracking industries.
The power of this progressive flank is growing. In addition to Lee and Friel Otten’s big wins, there were other important Democratic victories this year: Food & Water Action endorsed Nikil Saval (candidate for SD1), Jessica Benham (candidate for HD40) Emily Kinkead (candidate for HD20), and Rick Krajewski (candidate for HD188) because they each want to see Pennsylvania shift away from fossil fuels and stop the fracking industry from polluting our air, water and climate. Food & Water Action helped each of these candidates in different ways. Some were given money directly by Food & Water Action PAC; for others, we raised their profile by running digital ads; for all we made sure our members were on our side with texts and calls.
Our goal for 2020 was to double the side of this progressive caucus. After these amazing primary victories, we are well on our way to doing that. We look forward to using the general election to build out a network of voters ready to vote on climate as their number one issue to elect anti-fracking champions like former Food & Water Watch local leader Tara Zrinski, who is running for State House District 138. Success will mean a new Democratic majority in the state house, a stronger progressive flank ready to check Governor Wolf’s pro-fracking policies, and building long term grassroots power for our movement.
The fossil fuel industry wields enormous power in Harrisburg. But by working to elect leaders who will stand up to them, the tide is turning and we’re more hopeful than ever that we can create a safe, livable future for Pennsylvanians.
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