Democratic Socialists descend on Pittsburgh for first-ever Rust Belt conference
Aug. 7, 2018 – Representatives from about two dozen Democratic Socialists of America chapters – around 150 “comrades” – will gather in Pittsburgh from Aug. 10 to Aug. 12 for the political organization’s first-ever Rust Belt Conference.

The chapters will meet amid a surge in interest and new membership in the national group, which received a significant boost from PittsbWes Venteicherurgh when DSA candidates Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato won state House Democratic primaries in May.

“We’re kind of central in the Rust Belt, and we’re also a big vibrant chapter that’s been doing work that other chapters are looking it,” said Adam Shuck, a member of the group’s coordinating committee.

The Pittsburgh chapter’s membership has exploded to 800 people since it was fully formed in May 2017, driven by the popularity of Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, Shuck said.

The group’s members mounted a get-out-the-vote campaign that helped push Innamorato and Lee to decisive victories over incumbents Dom and Paul Costa in House districts representing parts of Pittsburgh.

“Those were early shock wins for DSA candidates,” said Shuck.

Then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a June primary in New York, defeating establishment Democrat Joe Crowley and attracting national attention. The DSA has grown to 47,000 members nationwide from about 6,000 three years ago.

“Pittsburgh’s involvement in the primaries this year was I think very important,” said Christine Riddiough, a chairwoman of the DSA’s national steering committee. “It’s been one of the chapters that’s been really out there in the electoral arena in a way that we haven’t seen in the DSA in a very long time.”

The Pittsburgh victories underscored the power in traditional campaign activities such as knocking on doors and calling people, which Riddiough said have proven more effective than new strategies based on internet activity and advertising.

Election organizing will be among the topics discussed at the conference, along with sessions titled “Assembly line to bread line: A red history of the Rust Belt,” “Exploring anti-carceral solutions to the Rust Belt Opioid Epidemic,” “A woman’s place is in the struggle” and “Lead paint and tenants’ rights.”

Shuck said the Rust Belt Conference was born at the DSA’s national convention in 2017 in Chicago. He said he organized a meeting of Rust Belt groups at the convention, and they kept in touch through a Google group. They organized the conference through the group, planning to address issues common to post-industrial urban America, rural areas and small- to mid-sized cities.

They organized a committee to pick where they would hold the conference. Columbus and Pittsburgh submitted applications, and chapters picked Pittsburgh in a vote. Due to space limitations, the chapter had to limit attendance to about 150 people.

The conference, which is not open to the public, will be held at the Johnston Elementary School in Wilkinsburg, where the Pittsburgh chapter recently started leasing space.

The space hosts the groups monthly general meetings, which include potlucks and child care and end with a song. It also hosts many committee meetings, along with regular “gimme a brake (light)” events, in which the group replaces brake lights for free to help people avoid unnecessary police encounters.

Shuck said the conference will spotlight Pittsburgh’s “socialist sprout” program, which provides child care and education on socialist ideas.

Riddiough said the program could be adopted by more chapters to help women be able to participate and to provide education on a subject that receives little attention in schools.

The Pennsylvania GOP has taken note of the DSA’s surge in the state. The party has launched attacks on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket of Tom Wolf and John Fetterman, calling Fetterman’s advocacy for free college, single-payer health care and immigration reform “radical” and “out of touch.”

Innamorato and Lee – who face no Republican challengers – have campaigned on the same issues, along with environmental advocacy, criminal justice reform and other issues. Lee said her advocacy for those issues amounts to “common sense,” rather than ideological zeal.

Democratic Party officials have also taken note. Eileen Kelly, who became chairwoman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in a June election, cited the DSA in an interview with WESA , telling the station that the group’s grassroots success shows “the Democratic Socialists are doing what we used to do best.”

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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