Gerald S. Dickinson, a 32-year-old law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, announced on Wednesday his intention to shake up the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district.
He will face U.S. Rep. Michael Doyle who has represented the district for nearly 25 years and hasn't seen a significant primary challenger in at least a decade. The two will vie for control of a district that encompasses all of Pittsburgh as well as several municipalities to the south and east of the city, including Jefferson Hills and Monroeville.
Dickinson grew up not far north from the district in a one-story home in Shaler Township with his adoptive parents, Bob and Judy Dickinson. He has seven other adopted brothers and sisters. He’s never met his biological parents.
Both Dickinson and people who know him say his approach to politics and policies are rooted in how he grew up.
Since 2016, Dickinson has served as a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, focusing on constitutional law, housing and property rights. He’s submitted expert testimony to the United States Senate, writing against the need for a wall on the southern border that President Donald J. Trump has been calling for. And he’s clerked for a federal judge.
Dickinson has concentrated on housing issues throughout his career. While working at Downtown-based law firm Reed Smith, he helped start the Housing Rights Project — a pro bono initiative in which lawyers work on behalf of tenants in eviction proceedings. And, in 2009, he represented indigent tenants in housing lawsuits as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa.
“He’s just one of those guys that came from a difficult situation as a kid and I think uniquely said, ‘I want to improve this not for myself but for others,’” said Daniel Vitek, a lawyer at the Community Justice Project who worked with Dickinson on the Housing Rights Project.
Dickinson said he’s running for Congress because Pittsburgh and its surrounding municipalities are facing the same issues that they faced when Doyle took office: a shortage of affordable housing, crumbling infrastructure and a lack of upward mobility for residents.
“We're talking about stagnant economic mobility, we're talking about exorbitant healthcare costs, we're talking about a failed criminal justice system, skyrocketing housing prices,” Dickinson said. “I mean, these are all things that are just continuing over and over again, and it's time for a change. It's time for a generational change. It's time for new leadership. It's time for a new voice.”
It’s safe to say Dickinson is challenging Doyle from the left, and that Dickinson identifies as a progressive. He said “it would be reasonable for voters to perceive” him as aligning with the left wing of the Democratic party. However, he cautions that “not all problems can be solved with one ideological perspective.” Some require pragmatism, he said.
Going up against Doyle, an entrenched local Democrat who tends to win his elections handily, will be a challenge. Born in Pittsburgh in 1953, Doyle earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University. He served as an aide to former state Sen. Frank Pecora before joining Congress. When Rick Santorum vacated his seat in the U.S. House to run for the Senate in 1994, Doyle ran for his House seat, flipping it from Republican to Democrat. Since then, he’s been a reliable Democratic vote in the House, supporting things like net neutrality and green jobs to combat climate change.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said Dickinson will have to both convince voters to vote for him and give them a reason to vote against Doyle.
“He has to identify why the incumbent should be turned away. He has to have a reason,” Madonna said.
Whether it be identifying “inconsistent” votes he’s made or something else, “it has to be a reason that voters understand and that voters buy in to,” Madonna said. He added that typical fundraising for a race like this tends to be between $800,000 to $1 million.
Dickinson knows he’s got his work cut out for him. Part of the reason he’s announcing his candidacy now is so he’ll have plenty of time to earn name recognition among local voters. He also expects to be challenged on his relative lack of experience.
“You're always going to come up against issues regarding experience, people who are going to say, ‘Seniority matters in Washington and why lose seniority and experience with a newcomer?’” he said. “And I think the answer to that is we're at a time in our country, and in this district particularly, where we need new leadership and someone who can see a new vision and give people a new voice on the issues that really matter.”
Despite those challenges, Dickinson thinks he has a shot. And people who know him say he has a unique way of thinking about policy and prides himself on coming up with innovative solutions to wonky policy problems.
In 2015, for example, he published a law review article arguing against the ‘One-Strike Rule’ in public housing. That rule says that if a person living in public housing or any of their guests or visitors are alleged to be involved in illegal activity, particularly drug related, they can be evicted. Dickinson proposed a new framework for handling those cases, citing a rarely used part of the law to force the public housing authorities to show more proof in court that a person was engaged in illegal activity and give the courts more power to overturn an eviction. As a result, Dickinson wrote that using this method would allow more people, particularly poor women with children, to stay in their homes.
“I think one aspect of his article that is somewhat unique is its focus on the moral [and] human issues involved in creating the legal theory,” Vitek said.
According to his law review articles and other writings, Dickinson looks for ways to reform policies and systems without throwing everything out. He said he knows the current systems, whether it’s criminal justice or the economy, aren’t working. But rather than propose complete overhauls, he proposes significant, but incremental, changes to the systems to make them work better — at least for the time being.
“You have to be able to reform, initially I think, a lot of the systems that are in place. And as a reformer, as someone who understands these systems, I think that's where you have to start,” he said.
But if reform — including legislation, policy changes and constitutional amendments — doesn’t work?
“If that doesn't work, there are legitimate arguments that you can change the system altogether,” he said. “These are complicated, complicated issues that can't just be wiped away in one broad stroke.”
Dickinson spoke of coming to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives with a “Grand Housing Bargain” to address everything from rising rent prices to families not being able to keep up with mortgage payments. Solutions, he said, could look like more federal funding for affordable housing, expanding tax credits that private developers use to build affordable housing, charging local housing authorities with building more housing — or all three. Dickinson also favors inclusionary zoning policies, as long as they’re developed with the right legal framework.
Dickinson also backs increasing federal funding for public transit — something the federal government said could help curb climate change — but that doesn’t mean he would sign on wholesale to the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a proposed overhaul to the U.S. economy to fight climate change by ending the use of fossil fuels, to guarantee well-paying jobs for all Americans and to shift transportation systems to use only renewable energy, among other proposals. Dickinson said he would read the exact language and study the details to determine if he would support it.
When it comes to health care, Dickinson wants to expand Medicare and Medicaid. However, he doesn’t commit to the single-payer proposal of Medicare for All, a plan that would cause the federal government to provide health care. Rather than Medicare for All, Dickinson said, “health care for all.”
“We've got to figure out ways, pragmatic ways, to expand Medicare and Medicaid, lower the eligibility requirements for these programs to expand and cover more of the uninsured,” he said. “You cannot continue on with the system that we currently have where people are either paying exorbitant prices or they can't get access to it at all. The system is unsustainable.”
On Medicare for All, he adds these caveats:
“The question becomes, ‘How do you pay for that?’ To what extent does this mean wiping away the entire private healthcare industry? We have to work within the framework we have,” he cautioned.
On the topic of criminal justice, Dickinson takes issue with the exorbitant amount of tax dollars being spent on mass incarceration and the theory of mass incarceration in general — the idea being that jail time will cause people to change their behavior. “We cannot continue to waste our money just simply throwing more and more people behind bars. It doesn't work,” he said.
Rather, he said, taxpayer money should be put toward rehabilitation programs so people can “start reforming themselves” while they’re still in prison. He also takes a stand against mandatory minimum sentencing, juvenile detention and solitary confinement. Mandatory minimums and juvenile detention should both be “scaled back,” he said, while solitary confinement should be abolished altogether. He also suggested an examination of the legality of civil asset forfeiture (a process that allows police officers to take property that is involved in a crime). “There are certainly some due process issues that come up” in those cases, he said.
Dickinson’s writings about the Trump administration are another example of how he views politics and policy. He wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in March 2017 arguing against the need for a wall along the U.S. southern border. Though he wrote that a wall was “in service of a wrongheaded immigration policy,” he didn’t stake his argument on moral grounds. Rather, Dickinson dove deep on eminent domain case law, arguing that it would take “decades” of court battles before any such wall could be built and that it may not be legal for the federal government to amass that much land via eminent domain. At the time, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, saw his op-ed and asked Dickinson to submit expert testimony to the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Dickinson did so a month later.
Without question, however, is that Dickinson would be a loud voice in Congress against Trump. With his various op-eds aimed at the Trump administration as warm-ups, he imagines himself being a “voice of reason” that can help “constrain the president and some of his actions.”
“To have a lawyer, a constitutional law professor who really understands what this all means for a constitutional republic and have that person in Congress and be a voice who's not afraid to push the envelope publicly, I'm going to be doing that on the campaign trail and I would do that of course once I get into office,” he said.
The perspectives and passions held by Dickinson are undoubtedly linked to his childhood and experiences with his siblings. But what’s unique, according to those who know him, is how he has consistently applied his worldview in service of others.
Three months after he was born, Dickinson’s birth parents gave him up for adoption because they were unable to care for him. He ended up in the Dickinsons’ foster home. At one time, the Dickinsons fostered 11 children, but eventually adopted eight of them, including Jerry (his nickname).
When the family would go out to eat, they’d pack themselves into the two family station wagons. Restaurant hostesses would sometimes ask his parents, “What daycare are you guys with?” So it goes with two white parents watching over eight children of different races.
Dickinson went on to attend Shaler Area High School. He was a soccer star there and at the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, even given a tryout invite for the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer. Last year, the Shaler Area School District inducted him into their athletic hall of fame.
Dickinson’s time in college was a balance between soccer and academics. While at Holy Cross, he approached Thomas Landy, a professor in the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, to do a senior thesis. Dickinson was interested in researching policies around Section 8 housing from a sociology perspective, Landy said, and how to make it “work better for people.”
Landy was so impressed with the 125-page result, he still has a copy of the paper in his office. Even then, Landy said he could tell that Dickinson was a leader, had a “sunny spirit” and tackled problems with pragmatism. He also saw Dickinson as humble.
“It was the kind of humility where you look at the world and you say, ‘Why am I achieving but that sibling is not?’” Landy said. “It’s a groundedness, a maturity that not a lot of kids have.”
Dickinson said some of his adopted siblings have battled addiction, been incarcerated, including in solitary confinement, and have dealt with low wages and the struggle to find affordable housing.
“These are facets of growing up in that environment and that family that kind of give you...a broader sense of what it means to be tolerant and also have a passion for understanding those problems and issues, identifying them and also wanting to do something about it,” he said.
After college, Dickinson completed his Fulbright scholarship work in South Africa and then returned to the United States to attend law school at Fordham University. There, he met one of his mentors, Sheila Foster, now a law professor at Georgetown Law.
“The minute I met Jerry I knew he was going to be something special,” Foster said. “I just remember being struck by that.”
Dickinson stood out because he had taken action on his passions, she added.
“A lot of people come in saying they’re interested in something...but they haven’t done anything in that area,” she said. “He’s been really consistent in applying his principles and his passion.”
While in New York for law school and in Philadelphia clerking for then-Chief Judge Theodore McKee, Dickinson continued his work of representing low-income clients struggling with housing issues. More recently while serving as a law professor and continuing pro bono work on housing and other development issues, he’s earned the respect of Sala Udin — activist, former Pittsburgh City Council member and a current member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board.
“There are not many attorneys who are willing to put their careers on the line by confronting the powers that be in terms of development,” Udin added.
Udin has spoken to Dickinson’s college classes three times. He said his impression of Dickinson is that he’s “always very thoughtful, genuine and an intellectual heavyweight... He’s someone who I wish I could say, ‘I’ve known him for 40 years.’”
J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL