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Congresswoman Barbara Lee Aims To Defy Expectations In Her Historic Run For U.S. Senate

Lisa Collins

In a surprising turn of events, Congresswoman Barbara Lee beat out heavily funded opponents Adam Schiff and Katie Porter to win the most votes from California Democratic Party delegates at the annual convention in November ahead of the March 5 primary.

Although the race for the Senate seat previously occupied by Dianne Feinstein and presently held by Senator Laphonza Butler lacked an outright endorsement, Lee’s campaign—fourth in current state polls— gained significant momentum.

The victory underscored Lee’s propensity for overcoming adversity – a trait she exemplified as a single mother raising two young boys on public aid and food stamps and in establishing a small business that would grow to employ up to 400 employees. Her election to Congress in 1998, where she has served for a quarter of a century, also attests to this tenacity as does her rise to the highest-ranking Black woman in House Leadership with her position as co-chair of the powerful Steering and Policy Committee.

“Black women have always known how to beat the odds,” says Lee, who is a former Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and current chair of the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity. “Everyone was trying to get as many votes as we could get and it was remarkable, because we didn’t do anything except organize around the state. That’s an example of the kind of grassroots movement we have. We had the delegates organizing. We have members of the Legislative Black Caucus organized, and we have a multiracial multi-generational movement going on.”

And despite raising significantly less funding than her opponents, she still remains competitively close to Porter and former L.A. Dodger Steve Garvey. This positions her within reach of securing one of the top two spots required for eligibility in the forthcoming general election in November.

The 77-year-old legislator believes that her story is one that resonates with most Californians.           “When you look at California, we have 40 million people. Twenty million of them are living one paycheck away from poverty and lived experiences are important,” Lee states. “Latinos, African Americans, AAPI, Whites, progressives, young people, seniors—everyone, except for the very wealthy here in California, are having a really hard time.

“The affordability crisis is driven by largely by the cost of housing and childcare,” she continues. “When I was in college, I had to take my kids to school with me to class, because I couldn’t afford childcare and here, we are in 2024 and people still can’t afford childcare. My lived experiences speak to the aspirations and dreams of Californians. I know how to move forward and develop policies to make life better for everybody.”

Lee contends that her lived experiences speak to new ways of solving problems as today she is on the Appropriations Committee where she has led on issues like the child tax credit.

“When you look at the affordability crisis, I know what that experience is. My opponents haven’t had that experience,” Lee explains. “When you look at reproductive freedom, I’ve talked about the abortion I had to go to Juarez, Mexico to have at 15 years old before Roe V. Wade.

“Today, I co-chair the pro-choice caucus. I have used those experiences to really help women and help try to put into federal law the right to an abortion.”

The same is true she says of business where for 11 years Lee was a union contractor with a facilities management company. Just last month, she penned a letter to Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su to address the widespread layoffs of Black Tech employees.

“I know how to create jobs,” Lee said. “I know what making a payroll means and the challenge of being able to access credit. I know the impact layoffs have on racial, ethnic and gender diversity. Many small businesses and California need that perspective because that’s how our economy grows. People need to look at my background.”

Early childhood experiences in her native El Paso, Texas, contribute to her nuanced understanding of complex immigration issues.

“I was raised born and raised in a border town and grew up in an immigrant community, so I understand the immigration issues and what is taking place.” Lee asserts. “We’ve got to have this comprehensive pathway to citizenship. It’s got to be orderly, and it’s got to be secure, but we’ve also got to remember that this country was built on immigrant labor.”

Lee’s distinctly bold political stance brought her national attention in 2001 with her solitary vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against in 2001 following the 9-11 attacks, because of the overly broad powers to wage war the bill extended to the president. She would prove to have been ahead of her time with the warning to her colleagues of “embarking on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target’.” 

Lee also broke rank as one of the early advocates in Congress for a lasting ceasefire in Gaza, amidst a protracted humanitarian crisis. This stance sets her apart from Schiff, who is staunchly opposed to a ceasefire, Porter, who took a more measured approach, eventually favoring a conditional ceasefire, and Garvey.

“On national security, the perspective in the Senate is not the perspective that a Barbara Lee has,” she stated. “We have three legs of our national security, defense, diplomacy and development and we don’t do nearly enough on diplomacy and development.

Lee led the effort to audit the Pentagon in 2018.

“I worked with Republicans and got it written into law. Congress pours trillions of taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon, but we still have no clear idea how that money is being spent,” said Congresswoman Lee.

A month ago, the Pentagon flunked its sixth audit.

“My problem,” says Lee, “is that they don’t have that kind of perspective in the Senate. I believe I can make a huge dent in our national budget priorities and do legislation and appropriation strategies to bring that defense budget under control.”

She is one of ten members of Congress who were enjoined as plaintiffs in the NAACP’s lawsuit against Donald Trump, the first civil legal action seeking to hold the former president along with the Proud Boys and others accountable for their conduct connected to the January 6th insurrection.

She has also led on funding HBCUs minority serving institutions and was the first African American to chair the State and Foreign Operations Committee.

During COVID she partnered with then Congresswoman Karen Bass to make sure that funding from the American Rescue Plan was targeted to faith-based organizations and nonprofits, as well as community clinics in Black, Brown and Native American communities, including a provision that they could hire trusted messengers. And as the only Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee west of the Mississippi, she has carved out issues around farmworkers food insecurity in the Central Valley. 

For Lee, the allure of the Senate lies in its mathematical appeal. She believes that being one among 100 is more impactful than being one of 435. Despite the dysfunction that often characterizes the venerable chamber, she maintains that her work can wield profound influence and is not intimidated at the idea of working with Republicans.

“When the HIV AIDS crisis was disproportionately killing Black people here and in Africa, I went to George Bush, and I said, look, we’ve got to do something”, Lee recalls. “He listened and worked with me on my legislation that created the PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief ) program and we were able to save 25 million lives.

“I also worked with Republicans on marijuana as a criminal justice issue that disproportionately impacted young Black and Brown people. I went to the Republicans started the cannabis caucus, which I co-chair and introduced the very first marijuana Justice Act to expunge the records of those who were charged and incarcerated, or put on parole behind cannabis measures; and also to provide for equity in the cannabis industry, which is a trillion-dollar industry now, and black and brown people aren’t getting what they deserve.”

Fighting is how Lee says she came into the world.

“My mother needed a C-section, and they wouldn’t admit her into the hospital because she was black,” Lee recounts. “She finally did get in but too late for a C section and almost died in childbirth. So, I started early on fighting just to live.”

As a teenager in San Fernando High School, when Black girls couldn’t be cheerleaders, she joined forces with the NAACP and became her high school’s first Black cheerleader.

Ironically, politics wasn’t something Lee aspired to until she met Shirley Chisholm., who made history in 1968 as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and again in 1972 as the first Black candidate and woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

“I was a student at Mills College, and part of our course requirement was campaign fieldwork,” Lee recalls. “At the time, I was president of the Black Student Union and a community worker with the Black Panther Party, so I invited Shirley Chisholm to come to Mills College to speak.

“I talked to her afterwards and she asked me if I was registered to vote, and I told her I had no interest in voting. That I was going to do my activism, study and take care of my kids. She said, ‘No, you’ve got to register and get involved because these rules weren’t made for you and me. You’ve got to help us on the inside so we can shake things up.”

Lee ended up organizing the Chisholm’s Northern California presidential primary out of her class at Mills College and went to Miami, Florida as a Shirley Chisholm delegate.

“The rest is history. We were friends up until the day she died,” Lee says fondly. “I also got the Black Panther Party involved in voter registration,” Lee adds. “In fact, it was when I brought Huey Newton down to Diahann Carroll’s house in Los Angeles to introduce him to Shirley Chisholm and get the Black Panther Party involved in voter registration and churches that I first met Maxine Waters.”

Lee went on to work for the late Ron Dellums—whom she would later succeed— for 11 years, starting out as an intern and ending up as his chief of staff. In 1990, she was elected to the California Assembly and the State Senate in 1996. During her tenure, she wrote California’s first Violence Against Women Act to ensure protections for victims of domestic violence and authored the California Schools Hate Crimes Reduction Act to protect all students – regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation – from hate crimes. She also worked to defeat California’s three-strikes law.

In 1998, with 66% of the vote, Lee—who holds an MSW from UC Berkeley in mental health—was elected to Congress to serve California’s 12th congressional district, which is based in Oakland. She would go on to be re-elected to the post 12 more times.

The twice married mother of two and grandmother is presently mounting a grassroots campaign that is winning people over the old-fashioned way—on the stump, shaking hands and sharing her legislative achievements.

“My message to voters, especially those voters who need somebody to speak to them, is look at my lived experiences. I have continuously strived to make life better for all.”

The most powerful side of her appeal is her ability to connect with people. To that end, Lee firmly believes that having the opportunity to directly interact with voters could swing the outcome of the race in her favor. Her supporters’ rallying cry, “Barbara Lee speaks for me,” bears testament to the power of her message.

The biggest challenge, however, is money as her opponents have outraised her by a huge margin. Nevertheless, she persists because she believes so deeply that hers is a voice and perspective that is needed in the Senate, she is betting it all and willing to risk her secure seat in Congress.

“It was a hard decision because I have a lot of seniority in the house”, said Lee.

It is a significant political gamble, and if elected Lee would only be the third Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate since it was established in 1789.

“We need my voice in the Senate and my experience in the Senate,” Lee states. “Representation matters. While you don’t have members of the Senate talking about racial equity and justice. I intend to use my leverage to make life better for everyone.”

For now, Lee’s Super PAC is set air a TV ad introducing her to voters statewide and Politico is set to host Schiff, Porter, Garvey and Lee in a debate on January 22 at USC.

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