Pro-Israel Lobby Spends Big to Defeat Progressive Summer Lee

Nearly three out of four dollars backing Lee's Democratic primary opponent Steve Irwin came from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or super PACs deeply tied to it.

Pro-Israel Lobby Spends Big to Defeat Progressive Summer Lee
Summer Lee and Steve Irwin are the leading candidates in the PA-12 Democratic primary.

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), fresh off its victory in helping defeat progressive Democratic challenger Nina Turner in Ohio, has begun throwing money behind corporate attorney and former Republican congressional staffer Steve Irwin in Pennsylvania. Irwin is facing progressive State House Rep. Summer Lee in the Democratic primary for the state’s 12th Congressional District, a solidly Democratic seat that is being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle. 

The group’s super PAC recently put $305,000 behind TV ads and $95,000 behind internet ads backing Irwin, according to new FEC filings. DMFI is closely tied to the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

It was founded in 2019 by Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and former AIPAC consultant, and several of its board members have recently held positions with AIPAC and its affiliated groups. Many of its donors have also been affiliated to AIPAC. For example, Stacy Schusterman, the chairman of oil and gas company Samson Energy who is DMFI PAC’s top donor this year with $2.5 million given, is a former AIPAC board member.

Irwin co-leads the government relations and securities groups as a partner with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl law firm. He previously led the firm’s employment group and according to his bio he continues to counsel clients “on all legal aspects of the employment relationship and labor compliance, with special emphasis on the financial services sector.” The employment group specializes in representing employers, and a version of the firm’s employment group pitch sheet archived by the Martindale-Hubbel legal resource lists “Union Avoidance” as one of its services, though that specific language has been cut from the version currently hosted on the Leech Tishman website. In March, labor news website Payday Report reported on documents showing Leech Tishman’s anti-union legal work, as well as Irwin’s work at the firm opposing paid sick leave legislation. In the 90s, Irwin was a legislative aide for then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate who raised over $2 million from securities and investment firms including Goldman Sachs over the course of his congressional career. 

The DMFI ad buy is just the latest piece of the explosion in spending by groups in the AIPAC universe this election cycle to boost corporate-aligned Democrats who face strong challenges from left-leaning candidates. AIPAC decided this cycle to engage directly in electoral politics, something it had avoided doing for decades in order to maintain an image of political neutrality around its pro-Israel advocacy. Its first round of endorsements announced in March included more Republicans than Democrats, and it has recently faced criticism for endorsing dozens of the Republicans who voted against certifying Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021.