Steve Irwin is familiar with unfamiliar territory

From early experiences in public school to confronting the Confederacy in rural Pennsylvania, the congressional candidate is ready for the next challenge

Last summer, a couple of months before announcing that he would run for Congress, Steve Irwin, an attorney and longtime Democratic activist in Pittsburgh, was traveling through rural Pennsylvania as he considered a separate bid for lieutenant governor. “What I saw,” he said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, “was really unsettling.”

The many Confederate flags that he had encountered were enough to make him “sick,” but equally if not more disturbing to Irwin, who is Jewish, was the sight of what he described as “Nazi memorabilia” at the county fairs he had visited during his peregrinations across the state. “It’s there,” he cautioned. “But I know what it’s like to feel like being the other.”

Beginning at the age of 10, Irwin says he was subject to overt and occasionally violent acts of antisemitic prejudice when he suddenly found himself among one of the only Jewish students in class after his family moved from Queens to the decidedly unfamiliar new territory of St. Petersburg, Fla. “I was very much in the minority,” Irwin recalled, and soon enough, “word got out” that he was different. “People literally thought we had horns, I mean literally thought we had horns,” he said. “I was really ridiculed. I was proselytized to every day at lunch. I was beaten up. Our house was egged.”

Irwin, now 62, recounted one particularly vivid anecdote that occurred around Christmastime in fifth grade when, during his first year in Florida, he returned home from school holding “a little red New Testament,” alarming his mother. “She went in to the principal and said, ‘What is this? This is a public school,’” Irwin told JI. “You know what they said? ‘No problem, we’ll have Steve go around to every class and tell them about Hanukkah,’ and that was the beginning of my public speaking experience. I literally went around every holiday.”

It was just one of several formative episodes, some more positive than others, that helped shape Irwin’s early self-conception as he navigated an environment that could often feel overwhelmingly hostile to his faith. “My Judaism was very much bigger in my life than it ever had been before,” he explained. But his Jewish identity, he added, “was really developed through those experiences.”

Such memories are fresh in Irwin’s mind as he mounts his first bid for public office in Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 12th Congressional District, where four years ago, a lone gunman carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, killing 11 people and wounding six at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

“I’ve got all this experience and we’ve got all these problems that we’re facing,” Irwin told JI. “I’m watching the way that government’s responding to the pandemic, I’m watching what’s happening with antisemitism, I’m looking at what’s happening throughout the world and the existential challenges that we face here in this region and beyond. I said, ‘I need to step up.’”

“We all are suffering from post-traumatic stress from that event,” said Irwin, a former congregant at Tree of Life who says he knew half of those who were murdered. “It’s something that we continue to be experiencing, the whole tragedy,” he added. “We’re in the middle of it still. The trial hasn’t occurred.”

At the same time, he said, sounding a note of optimism, the Jewish community in Pittsburgh has since built a diverse array of meaningful relationships across the interfaith spectrum, including with local Muslim leaders and Black clergy members who reached out after the shooting to lend their support. “We’ve gotten closer in so many ways here in Pittsburgh because of Tree of Life,” said Irwin, a representative for the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest regional board who has long been involved in organized Jewish life in Pennsylvania. “We’ve built bridges.”

Since he launched his campaign last November, Irwin — who shares a name but no relation with the late Australian crocodile hunter — has carved out a lane for himself as the leading establishment candidate in the May 17 primary. He recently notched a major endorsement from outgoing Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), who said in a statement that Irwin would “work with” President Joe Biden “to pass an agenda that helps working people” and that he would “deliver results.”

“I’ve got all this experience and we’ve got all these problems that we’re facing,” Irwin told JI. “I’m watching the way that government’s responding to the pandemic, I’m watching what’s happening with antisemitism, I’m looking at what’s happening throughout the world and the existential challenges that we face here in this region and beyond. I said, ‘I need to step up.’”

Irwin’s chief rival, Summer Lee, is a rising star in local progressive politics now finishing her second term as a state legislator. The 34-year-old Democratic Socialist — who, if elected, would become Pennsylvania’s first Black congresswoman — has consolidated support from the activist left at the state and national levels. Her coalition includes such like-minded progressives as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) as well as organized labor groups and the Sunrise Movement.

The other Democratic candidates in the race include Jerry Dickinson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Jeff Woodard, the executive director of Pennsylvania College Access Program.

While Irwin says he supported Lee and donated to her campaign when she unseated an entrenched Democratic incumbent in 2018 — part of a wave of progressive upsets that have recently disrupted the Democratic status quo in Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs — he argues that she is ultimately unqualified for the House. “She just hasn’t been around long enough,” said Irwin. “We need someone who knows how to get things done and is going to get things done. That’s my definition of progressivism: We make progress.”

Irwin himself has never held elected office but previously worked in the administration of Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, and before that served as a legislative assistant for Arlen Specter, the late senator who was then a Republican. He decided to “cross the line” and join Specter’s staff because the senator, who later became a Democrat, “had a reputation as being very moderate,” a quality that Irwin suggested he would bring to the House as well. 

“I feel that I’m a bridge-builder,” he told JI, arguing that his recent experience working with both Democrats and Republicans as the state advisory board chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has prepared him for tough negotiations. “I don’t see my chief opponent in this race as someone who is accomplishing that.”

His criticism underscores a central animating tension between mainstream and progressive Democrats, who are preparing to face off in a number of increasingly contentious primary battles for safely blue House seats this cycle while sparring over such issues as infrastructure spending and American foreign policy in the Middle East. 

For his part, Irwin took particular issue with Lee’s past statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, as in recent primaries in other post-industrial cities like Cleveland and the Bronx, is now emerging as a divisive issue in the race. “The things that she has suggested and said do not indicate a strong conviction that Israel has a right to exist and is recognized as a valid Jewish homeland,” Irwin charged. “To deny Israel’s central place in Judaism is a real problem for me.”

Lee’s public statements on the conflict appear limited to just a couple of social media comments during the war in Gaza last May. In one tweet, she argued that the “US has nvr shown leadership in safeguarding human rights of folks its othered,” drawing a parallel between the shooting of Trayvon Martin and Israel’s military actions amid escalating violence with Hamas. Taking aim at “American pols” who “use the refrain ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized pop,” Lee said she couldn’t “help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate& disproportionate force &power on weakened & marginalized ppl.” 

Asked to corroborate Irwin’s claim that his opponent does not believe Israel has a right to exist, his campaign manager, Alistair Glover, described Lee as a “vocal critic of Israel.” Citing her recent tweets, Glover said that Lee had “compared Israel’s actions against Palestinians to George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American who was unarmed when Zimmerman shot him.”

Glover also noted that Lee is a former member of the Democratic Socialists of America, which endorsed her first bid for public office in 2018 and “has supported” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “against Israel and criticized the country’s efforts to defend itself from Palestinian attacks.” He added that Lee is backed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, which asks that candidates express support for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel as part of its endorsement process.

In a statement to JI, Annie Weinberg, Lee’s campaign manager, said, “State Rep Lee has always supported Israel’s right to exist, and her opponent should point to any statements she has made that indicate otherwise. She has never been a part of the BDS movement, but opposes the criminalization of free speech. She believes that the US should hold all its closest allies accountable to international law and human rights standards, which means that taxpayer-funded military aid to Israel should have conditions ensuring the prevention of further illegal annexation of Palestinian land, expansion of settlements, Palestinian home demolitions and the detention of Palestinian children.”

Lee is expected to address such issues directly during a virtual conversation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on Monday night.

Still, local Jewish leaders who spoke with JI expressed reservations over Lee’s affiliation with the party’s progressive flank as well as some of her past remarks, even if they did not go as far as Irwin. “I don’t know what her positions have been so I don’t want to unfairly paint her position on Israel,” said Jeffrey Letwin, a lawyer and Democratic activist who is supporting Irwin’s campaign. “But she has described herself as progressive, and what we’re seeing in Congress is that the progressive wing of the party has staked out a position on Israel that is not as fair as I’d like to see.”

Dan Frankel, a Democratic state representative in Pittsburgh who has endorsed Irwin, said he has had “some concerns” about Lee’s approach to the Middle East “based on conversations” they have had on “foreign policy issues and support for Israel.” Frankel, who said has developed a “good working relationship with” Lee and “actively worked to get her reelected in 2020,” declined to elaborate on the specifics of their discussions, at risk of alienating a fellow member of his caucus.

In recent months, the primary has drawn interest from national pro-Israel groups such as Pro-Israel America, a grassroots advocacy group, and Democratic Majority for Israel, both of which have endorsed Irwin. In a statement to JI, Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI’s political arm, expressed concern over Lee’s endorsement from Justice Democrats while also suggesting that both Lee and Dickinson “have a history of making disparaging remarks about the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Dickinson, who unsuccessfully challenged Doyle in 2020, has previously criticized U.S. assistance to Israel and other countries on social media but has otherwise rarely commented on Middle East foreign policy in public, beyond a recent conversation with the local Jewish federation. 

In an interview, Dickinson said he is against conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, which he described as “problematic,” and supports the memorandum of understanding between the two countries that guarantees such funding. “My perspective is U.S. federal aid is and always will be instrumental to Israel’s security,” Dickinson, whose nephew is a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told JI. Dickinson said he was “open” to “end-use restrictions” of the sort favored by the liberal group J Street, which argues that U.S. aid should only be used for “legitimate security purposes.”

Laura Birnbaum, J Street’s national political director, said the group has “spoken with all the candidates in the race” and is “interviewing Jerry Dickinson and Summer Lee this week.” Both candidates “are being considered for J Street’s ‘primary approval’ designation, which we use to signal alignment on our issues” and which “opens up multiple candidates to receive contributions from” members, she told JI. “We’re not planning to endorse outright in this race.”

“As we traveled in a bus in Haifa on July 4, a bomb exploded in the plaza facing our base hotel in Jerusalem, killing 15 people,” he elaborates. “The bomb had been planted by a Palestinian posing as a delivery man. A balcony from our hotel was ripped off in the explosion.”

For Irwin, such issues run deep. He first visited Israel in 1975 on a summer-long pilgrimage with United Synagogue Youth, a movement affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “I had some pretty extraordinary experiences,” he said of the excursion — during which he turned 16 — despite that his hotel had been “bombed literally days before” the group arrived.

On the trip, Irwin “realized two different realities,” as he writes in a lengthy position paper. “One showcased Israel’s radiant beauty manifested through many facets,” but a “darker picture” had also surfaced — “one of terror and fear of the unknown.”

“As we traveled in a bus in Haifa on July 4, a bomb exploded in the plaza facing our base hotel in Jerusalem, killing 15 people,” he elaborates. “The bomb had been planted by a Palestinian posing as a delivery man. A balcony from our hotel was ripped off in the explosion.”

Irwin has since returned to Israel four times, including shortly after the Tree of Life shooting, when he visited Jerusalem with the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, and deposited notes from family members affected by the massacre into the crevices of the Western Wall.

Those experiences are just a few examples demonstrating Irwin‘s “uniquely personal” connection with Israel, said Jeff Mendelsohn, the executive director of Pro-Israel America, which has listed the primary as among the most important races of the cycle. “It’s not the only issue, obviously, but it is very personal for him,” Mendelsohn added, “and I think as a member of Congress that will be evident.”

From a policy standpoint, Irwin supports continued security assistance for Israel while arguing that BDS “purports a false reality rooted in anti-Zionist ideals” and “is a destructive global movement.” He says he is in favor of U.S. funding for the Palestinians in accordance with Taylor Force Act, which witholds aid to the Palestinian Authority on the condition that Ramallah ends payments to families of terrorists.

Irwin, who believes the U.S. embassy should remain in Jerusalem, endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he believes that attempts by “outside forces” to “impose a resolution” are “doomed for failure and will only prolong hostilities.” Instead, he favors legislation like former Rep. Nita Lowey’s Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, “which promotes people-to-people initiatives between the Israelis and Palestinians to advance peaceful co-existence,” as he put in his position paper. “These types of efforts will lead to community building, dialogue and reconciliation.”

He also backs efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, a country he visited in 2018 on a delegation with the American Middle East Institute.

The accords have contributed to broader stability in the region, Irwin says, in part because they have helped counter Iran. While Irwin says that the original iteration of the Iran nuclear deal “had serious shortcomings,” abandoning the agreement, as the Trump administration did in 2018, “has enabled Iran to move closer to having the bomb.” He supports the Biden administration’s renewed efforts to negotiate another deal, while clarifying that “any new agreement must” include “rigorous inspection” while addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as “Russia’s role” in the discussions.

At the state level, Irwin advocates for strengthening “cultural and economic ties” between Pennsylvania and Israel, including in the healthcare and technology sectors, and favors increased federal security funding for Jewish nonprofit institutions. 

Jeffrey Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said Irwin “has been involved with” local Jewish issues for decades, including volunteer work on fundraising drives as well as chairing the Community Relations Council. “He cares deeply about our Pittsburgh Jewish community.”

According to a 2017 study conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Pittsburgh is home to a Jewish population of nearly 50,000, approximately three-fifths of whom have visited Israel, suggesting that Middle East foreign policy considerations could weigh on a number of Jewish voters in the district.

With just over a month to go until the election, the dynamics of the race remain mutable as Irwin and Lee engage in what many experts view as a head-to-head battle for the nomination. Though Pittsburgh has been trending in a more progressive direction over the past few years, the updated district, which became somewhat less Democratic after the new congressional map was approved, could complicate that dynamic. The new lines take in moderate voters in the southern suburbs of Allegheny County as well as a western sliver of the conservative-leaning Westmoreland County.

Both Irwin and Lee have experienced some setbacks in recent months. Lee, who lives in Swissvale, was drawn out of the district in February, though only by a few blocks. Last month, Irwin’s campaign acknowledged that a petition circulator appeared to have forged some signatures, “a definite and well-publicized misstep,” said Lewis Irwin, a professor of political science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “At the same time,” he added, Dickinson “may split off some of the progressive votes, which would be to Irwin’s advantage.”

“This race is truly an open one that will likely hinge on the respective candidates’ advertising in the next month,” Irwin told JI, “as well as their ground games as they seek to build and turn out enough supporters to win a plurality of the vote.”

The candidates have yet to report their latest fundraising totals, which are due on April 15, but Irwin led the field last quarter, ending the year with nearly $300,000 on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission. Lee was sitting on just over $200,000 as of Dec. 31. 

Joseph Corrigan, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia who supports Lee and has donated to her campaign, anticipates that the primary could become increasingly nasty in the coming weeks, particularly now that DMFI has indicated its interest in the race. The pro-Israel group spent more than $2 million last summer in a hotly contested special House election in the Cleveland area but has not yet publicly indicated what sorts of investments it will make in the midterms.

 “I really think this is kind of like my Mordecai moment,” he said. “I’m a Jew. That’s who I am. I can’t deny it.”

DMFI did not respond to a request for comment from JI on its plans for the primary.

However the race goes, Irwin, who has long considered running for office, seems to be savoring his time on the trail. Recently, at a bingo event in Whitehall, he pulled out his accordion, which he played as a teenager in a fairly popular Klezmer band called Solomon and the Wise Guys, and performed “The Pennsylvania Polka” for a crowd of 100 or so voters “You know what?” he said. “They were on their feet. They were clapping. They were excited. They took signs, petitions. Whatever it takes.”

Meanwhile, Irwin remains convinced that he entered the race for the right reasons. In high school, Irwin starred as Mordecai in a musical production of the Purim story, with songs from “The Man of La Mancha.”

“‘To dream the impossible dream,’ you know, the whole thing with Esther,” Irwin said, referring to the Jewish queen of Persia who, with help from her cousin Mordecai, foils a plot to eradicate the Jews. 

Lately, Irwin said he has been thinking about that role again as he runs for office. “I really think this is kind of like my Mordecai moment,” he said. “I’m a Jew. That’s who I am. I can’t deny it.”

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