First Things First

Summer Lee Doesn't Care For Your Small Talk

On her path to Congress, the representative-elect made history in Pennsylvania.

by Sara Stewart
In the Congressional election between Mike Doyle and Summer Lee, results favored Lee.

As the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania, Summer Lee is well acquainted with challenging the status quo. Last month, she was chosen to represent the swing state’s 12th District in the U.S. House, winning 55.7% of the vote against Republican candidate Mike Doyle. (As a telling example of the old-boy homogeneity in western Pennsylvania politics, Lee will replace a retiring Democrat also named Mike Doyle.)

“Sometimes, change is uncomfortable,” she tells Bustle. “Often in American political discourse, we value the least confrontational routes, but the reality is that avoiding tension isn’t how we grow.”

Earlier this month, she wrapped up orientation with a subtweet at some of her new deep-pocketed colleagues: “We’re in the financial disclosure part of orientation, but I don’t trade any stocks or have offshore accounts, so I can probably head out,” she tweeted.

She might’ve had another reason for ducking out, too: Lee isn’t a big fan of chitchat. “I think I get more introverted as I age,” says the representative-elect, who’s 35. “I’m definitely not good with small talk. I get a lot of social anxiety. Being in a conversation with a group of people I don’t know, it just gives me the heebie-jeebies. But if it’s a small group of people I know, I’m very outgoing.”

“In 2017, someone asked if I would consider running for state rep. I texted a couple friends, and they were both like, ‘Uh, yeah, duh!’”

Lee grew up in Braddock, the steel town where Senator-elect John Fetterman was once mayor. She worked as a community organizer in Pittsburgh before being elected to the Pennsylvania House in 2018. Today, she’s viewed as a rising star in progressive politics — all six of “The Squad” members endorsed her congressional race — due to her support for reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights, gun control, Medicare for All, expanding the Supreme Court, and environmental and economic justice, which includes the Green New Deal.

In January, her first priority will be “getting dark money out of politics,” says Lee, whose own campaign was demonized by ads fueled with a huge influx of cash from corporate donors. “I saw how detrimental it is. If there were other Black women who were thinking ‘Oh, I might get into politics because of her,’ by the end, they were saying, ‘I would never do this.’”

She’s hoping to change their minds. Below, Lee answers questions about other “firsts.”

First person you talked to today?

Actually, my staff. It was an unusual day — I resigned from the state House.

First person you text when something good happens?

The group text [with] my mom, my grandma, and my sister.

First time you saw yourself represented in entertainment?

That’s a hard question because I don’t really. Images and narratives about Black women are so few and far between, and so limited.

First time you earned a paycheck?

I was 15 or 16, working for my mom at her job. It was a nonprofit that helped folks find work. I was basically a gofer.

First time you traveled outside of the United States?

The Bahamas. I went there at [age] 7 on vacation.

First time voting?

Some inconsequential race in college that I don’t remember.

First time you missed an election?

It was the 2008 primary for Barack Obama, and I missed it because I was studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France.

First time you got involved in politics?

The same year, 2008. I got back in time for the general election, and I registered people to vote on campus.

First time someone told you to run for office?

In 2017, someone asked if I would consider running for state rep. I texted a couple friends, and they were both like, “Uh, yeah, duh!”

First time you believed you could win this race?

When I decided to get in it.