Outside The Focus Of Major Parties, Black Pittsburghers Vow To Get Out The Vote

Sep 24, 2020
Originally published on September 24, 2020 10:16 am

Tanisha Long expects to be busy in the run up to the 2020 election.

For the next six weeks, Long, who founded an unofficial Black Lives Matter chapter for Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania, plans to make get-out-the vote videos, host mail-in voting webinars and work to enfranchise eligible incarcerated people in order to turn out voters she says "no one's talking to anymore."

Long's concern is this: she sees the campaign for Democratic nominee Joe Biden making the same mistakes in Pennsylvania that Hillary Clinton made in 2016. Long believes the Biden campaign is failing to do enough to engage traditional Democratic constituencies.

"I just can't have that happen again, it's really stressing me out," she says.

Donald Trump famously lost the popular vote in 2016 by over 2.8 million votes but secured a victory in the electoral college by winning razor thin margins in key swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are focused on these states, looking to get support from voters who either sat out 2016 or might be persuaded to vote for the other side. In Pennsylvania, that has meant a disproportionate interest in white suburban voters. Trump won them over by larger margins than expected in 2016, including just outside Pittsburgh in Washington County.

Sheridan Newsome, 21, walks by a mural in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood. Despite receiving the consistent support of Black communities, many voters here say Democratic leaders have largely failed to effectively address enduring problems like police violence, discrimination and income inequality that have disproportionately hurt Black residents in Pittsburgh.
Nate Smallwood for NPR

But a tightly contested 2020 election in Pennsylvania could be decided at least in part by people outside those suburbs. This includes Pittsburgh's Black residents, 22 percent of the city's population, who are usually considered a reliable Democratic constituency.

And yet, Democrats could have their work cut out for them.

Despite receiving the consistent support of Black communities, some voters here say Democratic leaders have largely failed to effectively address enduring problems like police violence, discrimination and income inequality that have disproportionately hurt Black residents in Pittsburgh.

'For voting, it takes a personal touch'

Writer Damon Young, 41, is a life-long Pittsburgher who founded the website Very Smart Brothas and wrote the memoir What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker. He says he was alarmed — but not surprised — by a widely publicized report out of the city of Pittsburgh's Gender Equity Commission last year that found that while white Pittsburgh residents have better health outcomes and quality of life than the national average, the city is one of the worst in the country for Black people, and particularly for Black women. Black residents deal with higher infant mortality rates, lower wages, worse educational outcomes, and higher incidences of cardiovascular disease and cancer. All this in a city that often ranks on the list of the country's most livable cities.

"That's the thing," Young says.

For Young, this kind of long-term inequality can make it hard to persuade Black residents to turn out.

"It can be a hard sell. If someone says 'We've had nothing but Democratic mayors in Pittsburgh my entire life, and well, it doesn't affect me. There's still this violence happening, there's still no jobs, the schools are better in the white communities, that hasn't changed with Barack Obama being president or Bill Peduto being mayor. So why should I care?' " he says.

Hip-hop artist Jasiri X is working to help people vote with a new nonprofit he helped create called 1Hood Power.
Steve Inskeep / NPR

Young's friend Jasiri X, the 37 year-old hip hop artist who runs the community organization 1Hood, says he used to vote as an independent. Then he realized that Pittsburgh's strong Democratic party history means that the primaries are where the important politics happen, so he had to become a Democrat to vote in the local elections that mattered.

Though he's now a Democrat, he sees the party's establishment as detrimental to Black Pittsburghers.

"We're comfortable doing things the way they are but that's harmful to me as a Black person. It's been harmful to my community for years. So I'm somebody looking for bold, innovative change," he says.

To help push the party in a more progressive direction, Jasiri X is working to help people vote with a new nonprofit he helped create called 1Hood Power.

"What I didn't see in 2016 was an investment in Black-led organizations to actually speak to Black people, to have those important conversations, to get Black people to the polls," he says. "For voting, it takes a personal touch."

Young and Jasiri X both plan to vote for Biden, though they aren't enthusiastic about him or his running mate, Kamala Harris.

Simply put, Young believes his life depends on Biden defeating Trump in November. And it's up to white voters to get it done.

"We talk about how Black women, Black voters, Latino voters will decide it. No. White people will decide the election," he says. "If he wins again, it's not because we weren't engaged. It's not because we didn't come out. It's because white people came out and ignored the four years of evidence of Donald Trump being an unrepentant racist and a misogynist and a terrible businessman."

'A fighting chance'

Lisa Cunningham, 58, has lived in the Hill District, one of Pittsburgh's historically Black neighborhoods, for about 45 years. She's worried about a lot of the things Young and Jasiri X identified as issues that might lead people to be reluctant to vote for Democrats, or to vote at all.

"Jobs, fairness, economic disparities, racism. You have people sitting on top of us up there and they're looking down on us down here," Cunningham says, gesturing to the skyscrapers downtown. But her enthusiasm for Biden — and for voting — remains strong.

"I adore him," she says about Biden, "I know he will give us equality and he will give us a fighting chance."

Cunningham says she'd rather risk catching the coronavirus to be able to cast her ballot in person than trust mail-in voting, even though her daughter had COVID-19.

Pennsylvania State House Rep. Summer Lee was first Black woman from western Pennsylvania elected to the Pennsylvania state house.
Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images

"There's nothing that can keep me from it. I'm going in there, COVID and all, to cast my vote," she says.

'I can't lead folks to a place that I'm not willing to go myself'

Summer Lee, 32, decided to run for office in 2018. She ran in Braddock, Pa., a town in the greater Pittsburgh area and one of the few that still has an active steel mill.

"We don't get a lot of Black women running for office. We don't get a lot of progressive folks running for office in western Pennsylvania," she says, "I can't lead folks to a place that I'm not willing to go myself."

Lee, a lawyer, unseated Democratic incumbent Paul Costa who had been in office for 20 years. She became the first Black woman elected to represent Southwestern Pennsylvania in the state house. She campaigned against a fracking proposal in Braddock and went door to door speaking with people about environmental racism, cyclical poverty and racial and economic justice.

But when she was running as an incumbent in the Democratic Party primary in early 2020, the Allegheny County Democrats endorsed her opponent, a white man. Lee won the primary handily anyway, with 77 percent of the vote, all but assuring a second term.

Lee's differences with the Democratic party establishment are profound. She was a delegate at this summer's virtual Democratic National Convention and voted against the party's official platform.

United States Steel's Edgar Thomson Plant seen in Braddock, Pa., on Sept. 12. Rep. Lee represents this area, which still has an active steel mill.
Justin Merriman / Bloomberg via Getty Images

"I don't believe it's a platform that meets the moment," she says. Though she differs with Biden on many issues — from fracking to Medicare For All — she fully intends to vote for him.

"If we're fighting for a healthier environment, if we're fighting for more equitable funding for schools, for police accountability and criminal justice reform, whatever it may be, we have an obligation to move us closer to that, not farther away," she says.

Looking for unity, diversity and strength

Republican Lenny McAllister says he could not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 because of his Christian faith. But he also can't imagine ever voting for Biden.
Nate Smallwood for NPR

Lenny McAllister, 48, grew up in the Penn Hills area of Pittsburgh, where he still lives. His father was raised in East Liberty. His mother was from the nearby Homewood neighborhood, which was once middle class and later declined, and where McAllister spent a lot of his childhood.

He says his anti-abortion and pro-school choice beliefs are cornerstones of his politics. He ran for Congress in 2016 as a Republican in Pennsylvania's 14th district (he lost) after securing the nomination in a write-in campaign, but says he could not bring himself to vote for Trump because of his faith. He made that decision before the election "when Mr. Trump said in 2015 that he never felt that he had to ask God for forgiveness, just figured he would fix it himself."

As a Christian, he says, he understands that "you can't fix everything yourself."

"When I heard that," he says, "that was enough for me to take a step away."

But McAllister also can't imagine ever voting for Biden, in part because a crime bill he shepherded through the Senate in 1994.

"His 1994 crime bill disproportionately impacted communities such as Homewood, where literally generations of fathers and mothers spent disproportionate amounts of time in jail," he says.

William Allen walks by a mural in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Nate Smallwood for NPR

As one of few active Black Republicans in Pittsburgh, McAllister admits that the party has a problem embracing diversity.

"There's not a lot of Republicans that try to connect to different and diverse portions of the nation. I think that when we say 'we love America,' we love America in the sense that we love what we're familiar with. We don't love Damon Young or Summer Lee when they disagree with us," he says.

And McAllister is troubled by many of the same problems facing his city, his community and his nation as Young and Lee: racial health disparities, discrimination and police violence.

"Damon Young is never going to be my enemy. Summer Lee, as a hardcore, left-leaning Democrat is never going to be my enemy," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is one way to view the presidential election - two white men born in the 1940s are contending to lead a diverse nation in the 21st century. As they debate the pandemic, police violence and protests - not to mention the supreme court - Black voters hear it all. They are considered a reliable Democratic constituency. But in closely contested states, it matters how many show up to vote and whether some take the Republican side. So we've been listening to Black voters in Pittsburgh in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

INSKEEP: We got an overview of Pittsburgh from an incline railway. It runs up a steep ridgeline, giving a view of skyscrapers downtown. At the observation deck on top, we met Tanisha Long.

TANISHA LONG: It never looks the same. The way the sun sets over here, like, it's a ton of different colors. And it shines off the buildings.

INSKEEP: We looked down on a stadium near the spot where three rivers come together.

LONG: And you can actually walk across the bridges to get to, like, the Steeler games and everything like that.

INSKEEP: Are you a Steelers fan?

LONG: Absolutely. They actually did something really cool where they honored one of the victims of police violence in Pittsburgh, Antwon Rose Jr., by wearing his name on the back of their helmets for the first game. It was so beautiful.

INSKEEP: This year, Long founded a local, unofficial chapter of Black Lives Matter. Pittsburgh is a very Democratic city. Although, she grew up in the surrounding countryside.

LONG: Very, very conservative. You just go from seeing Biden signs to Trump signs out of nowhere.

INSKEEP: In 2016, those conservative counties delivered a big vote for the president. In 2020, Long wants Democrats to register more voters for her side.

LONG: I want outreach. I want to see you in these counties. I want to see you talking to these people. You're going to lose a lot of these voters and counties if you're not showing up, which is kind of what happened with Hillary. I just can't have that happen again. It's really stressing me out.

INSKEEP: Joe Biden has campaigned in western Pennsylvania, competing against the president, who was in Pittsburgh just this week. To hear how the candidates are being received, we drove downhill to another Pittsburgh neighborhood.

American flags hanging from some of the old Victorian porches.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOMATED VOICE)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Turn right onto Jacksonia Street. Then turn left onto Buena Vista Street.

INSKEEP: Buena Vista is one of the area's streets named after battles in the war against Mexico. There, we sat in a park with this man.

DAMON YOUNG: Damon Young. Writer. Pittsburgher. Professional Black person.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

YOUNG: All right.

INSKEEP: That's a joke, he adds. He has written a memoir. Its title is tattooed on his biceps - "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker." Jasiri X, a hip-hop, artist sat six feet away wearing the logo cap for his company 1Hood Media.

JASIRI X: We have a show called "This Week In White Supremacy."

INSKEEP: Do you ever run out of material for that subject, "This Week In White Supremacy?"

JASIRI X: You know, we actually might have to do more than once a week.

INSKEEP: The men say this is one of the few diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Most neighborhoods feel segregated.

JASIRI X: We're sitting to you in a city that last fall was called the worst place in America for a Black woman to live. This was a study that came out of the mayor's own office that basically said a Black woman could go anywhere else in this country and have a better quality of life.

INSKEEP: Wait, the same city that is often called one of the most livable cities?

YOUNG: That's the...

JASIRI X: (Laughter) That's the joke.

YOUNG: Yeah, that's the thing.

INSKEEP: Which makes it tricky to persuade people to vote.

YOUNG: It can be a hard sell because if someone says, well, we've had nothing but Democratic mayors in Pittsburgh. And, like, well, it doesn't affect me. There's still this violence happening. There's still no jobs. There's still these - you know, the schools that are better in the white communities, that hasn't changed with Barack Obama being president or Bill Peduto being mayor. So why should I care?

INSKEEP: When the president talks, he will say some of the very same things you just said. He will say - and he'll - in this state, Democratic Party - he'll say, you've had a Democrat mayor, a Democrat governor...

JASIRI X: That's the one.

INSKEEP: ...It's done nothing for you.

JASIRI X: (Laughter) That's some of the truth that he talks. But he also mixes it with falsehood because he also said, give us a chance. And we're 200,000 deaths later.

INSKEEP: Both men say they feel their lives depend on ousting the president. And they will vote for Joe Biden. But Damon Young feels his fate is out of his hands.

YOUNG: We talk about how, you know, Black women, Black voters, Latino voters will decide. No, white people will decide the election. White people, you know, voting 60%, 65% for a person who I hold responsible for the deaths of 200,000 Americans. So if he wins again, it's not because we weren't engaged. It's not because we didn't come out. It's because white people came out and ignored the four years of evidence of Donald Trump being a unrepentant racist and misogynist and terrible businessman - I mean, just everything you can say about him.

INSKEEP: We did find enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee when we drove across the Allegheny River into the Hill District. In this historically Black neighborhood, we met Lisa Cunningham in a grocery store parking lot.

LISA CUNNINGHAM: I don't go for the BS, OK? I listen to my facts the way they are presented.

INSKEEP: She talked of her daughter, who was sick earlier this year with COVID-19, and her grandkids home from school. She blames the president's management of the pandemic.

Are you eager to vote this time?

CUNNINGHAM: I am. There's nothing that's going to keep me from it. I'm going in there - COVID and all - to cast my vote. I just don't care.

INSKEEP: You're going to do it in-person?

CUNNINGHAM: I'm doing it in-person.

INSKEEP: You don't like the mail-in option or the absentee?

CUNNINGHAM: I ain't taking that chance. I don't want to take that chance. I have my husband. We go hand-in-hand to vote.

INSKEEP: Will it be for Biden, then?

CUNNINGHAM: It will be for Biden. I adore him. I like his slow speech. He's not spitting stuff out of his mouth that don't make sense.

INSKEEP: A few parking places away, we met Casey Turner (ph). She's 22 and says police bias shaped her life.

CASEY TURNER: At 15, I was put into the county jail for my first time because some stupid down Fifth Avenue was robbing people, and I looked like the person who was going around robbing people.

INSKEEP: I think I heard you say put in the county jail for the first time.

TURNER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: There was another time?

TURNER: It was another time.

INSKEEP: That experience has not yet translated into voting. She was over 18 by the 2016 election but says she sat it out. The campaign was so intense, she says, she didn't know what to think. And she's been astonished ever since by President Trump.

TURNER: I was surprised to actually think stuff like that was possible, you know, because when you're young and you're in school, they teach you about presidents. And he's doing [expletive] that we've never even seen. I actually grew up wanting to get into politics. And I changed my career course because of him. I didn't want nothing to do with that.

INSKEEP: There are officials in Pittsburgh who want to engage people like Casey Turner. One of them is Summer Lee. She's a state representative whose district includes several old industrial suburbs.

SUMMER LEE: We don't get a lot of Black women running for office. We don't get a lot of progressive folks running for office in western Pennsylvania.

INSKEEP: We talked while sitting in the Civic Square of Braddock, Pa., which is part of her district. One of the Pittsburgh area's last steel mills is just down the street. Amid the old brick houses and vacant lots on the slopes running up from the Monongahela River, Lee ran for office in 2018.

LEE: What we ran on in this area was education and how it's connected to health care and how health care is connected to environment and how your environment is connected to your schools and the way that your kids perform. You know, we had a fracking proposal down at the steel mill. And those were the things that really galvanized folks.

INSKEEP: She has clashed with the local Democratic Party, fought off a primary challenge for reelection this year and differs with her party's presidential candidate. She wants to ban fracking now, while Joe Biden prefers to continue it until a later date. She supports Medicare for All, which Biden does not.

I think I read - do I have this right? - you were a delegate to the national convention.

LEE: Yes.

INSKEEP: You voted no on the platform.

LEE: I did.

INSKEEP: Why?

LEE: It's not an inclusive platform. I don't believe it's a platform that meets the moment.

INSKEEP: How enthusiastically are you able to support, then, a presidential candidate who's running on a platform that you voted against and who is on the opposite side of you on one of your signature issues?

LEE: I mean, he's on the opposite side of me on many issues, but so are lots of other candidates. If we're fighting for more equitable funding for schools, if we're fighting for, you know, police accountability and an end to police violence, if we're fighting for criminal justice reform - whatever it may be, you know? - we have an obligation to move us closer to that, not farther away. And I think it's very clear what's going to move us farther away.

INSKEEP: For Rep. Summer Lee, President Trump makes the choice a lot easier than it might otherwise be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE HUMMING)

INSKEEP: It's not hard to hear the rumble of dissatisfaction along the train tracks in Pittsburgh, like the neighborhood where we met Lenny McCallister. It's called Homewood and was once middle class but later declined.

LENNY MCCALLISTER: My mother grew up right down this way on - you go down here, you'll eventually hit Mount Vernon Street.

INSKEEP: As we talked on the street, a passing driver waved.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Love you, boy.

MCCALLISTER: I love you, too, cous' I'll see you later on. That's literally my first cousin.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Just driving by in a Chevy Suburban there.

MCCALLISTER: Told you I was from here. If you doubted me, was like, well, you know, Republicans like to say they got street cred because they - just because, there you go.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCALLISTER: Just saying.

INSKEEP: He ran for Congress in 2016 as a Republican and met us while wearing a pinstriped suit with an American flag lapel.

MCCALLISTER: For me, it's being a pro-life Catholic, born and raised Catholic. It's the value of education and school choice.

INSKEEP: Although, he did not vote for Trump in 2016 and says he will write in another name this fall.

MCCALLISTER: When Mr. Trump said in 2015 that he never felt that he had to ask God for forgiveness as a Christian, he just figured he would fix it himself - as a Christian, you understand that you can't fix everything yourself. When I heard that, that was enough for me to take a step away from his candidacy.

INSKEEP: Why not vote for Joe Biden?

MCCALLISTER: His 1994 crime bill disproportionately impacted communities such as Homewood-Brushton, where literally generations of fathers and mothers spent disproportionate amounts of time in jail.

INSKEEP: Lenny McCallister insists Republicans could attract more Black voters like him but don't often embrace diversity. He says he embraces the Black Pittsburghers we met in this story who don't agree with him.

MCCALLISTER: We say we love America. We love America in a sense that we love what we're familiar with. We don't love Damon Young or Summer Lee when they disagree with us. We don't love those type of Americans when they're critical of us. That's when they become our enemy. Damon Young's never going to be my enemy. Summer Lee, as a hardcore, left-leaning Democrat, is never going to be my enemy.

INSKEEP: McCallister says he wants the country to see an elevation in tone. He says he's looking for a leader who can embrace unity, diversity and strength. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.