Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee Announces Bid For Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate Seat
Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a longtime advocate for progressive issues and a leader in social justice and anti-war causes, on Tuesday formally announced her run for Dianne Feinstein’s highly coveted U.S. Senate seat.
In a video released by her Senate campaign, Lee leans on her biography; growing up in the segregated south, her successful fight to integrate her high school cheerleading squad, escaping a violent marriage, her time as a homeless mother and her determination to attend college as a single mom.
"To do nothing has never been an option for me," Lee says in the nearly three-minute video produced by the political consulting firm Left Hook. The veteran Democrat, who is 76, also addresses those who say her age might be a liability.
"For those who say my time has passed, well when does making change go out of style?," she asks in the video.
Lee has represented Oakland and neighboring East Bay cities in the U.S. Congress since 1998, when she won a special election to replace Ron Dellums — who she once worked as a staff member — after he resigned the seat. She has been easily reelected every two years since then.
Even before heading to Washington, Lee had a long history in public office, including stints in California’s state Assembly and Senate.
Lee is the third prominent Democratic member of Congress from California to join the increasingly crowded field of candidates seeking to replace Feinstein, who last week announced her plans to retire at the end of the current term after serving for more than 30 years. Even before Feinstein’s decision was made public, nationally recognized Reps. Katie Porter, of Orange County, and Adam Schiff, of Los Angeles, had already jumped into the race.
An aide to Lee says her campaign — launched during Black History Month — will emphasize the importance of representation in national government and remind voters that there are currently no Black women in the U.S. Senate. Kamala Harris, the last Black woman to serve in that chamber, resigned her seat in 2021 to become U.S. vice president.
"[Lee] has been a lifelong champion and fighter for racial justice and equality," said Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color, a San Francisco-based political organization, and author of the book, How We Win the Civil War. "And there are very few people in politics in this country, period, who can put their resumes up against Barbara Lee’s on that front."
Lee was born in 1946 in El Paso, where her mother worked with the NAACP to integrate the University of Texas. After she and her family moved to Southern California in 1960, Lee picked up the mantle of civil rights warrior. As she told KQED’s Political Breakdown in 2018, she fought to integrate her high school cheerleading squad in the San Fernando Valley.
"I was literally 15 years old, and I said, 'I really want to be a cheerleader and I can't because I don't look right,'" Lee said. She teamed up with the NAACP, which approached the school and urged them to change the process for selecting cheerleaders to make it more fair.
"And guess what? I won. So I was the first African American cheerleader at San Fernando High," Lee recalled.
Years later, as a single mother on public assistance, Lee went on to attend Mills College in Oakland, where she headed up its Black Student Union. In 1972, she invited Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, who was running for president that year, to speak to students on campus. The experience helped fuel her interest in politics.
"She said, 'you have got to register to vote and get involved because you can't stay on the outside, you know, looking in and fighting from the outside,'" Lee told KQED.
Around that time, Lee also coordinated fundraising efforts for the Oakland mayoral campaign of Black Panthers’ leader Bobby Seale, and later went on to work for Congressman Dellums, whose seat she would eventually take over.
In Congress in 2001, Lee gained national recognition when she famously cast the lone vote against giving President George W. Bush the authority to go to war with Afghanistan just days after the 9/11 attacks.
"Our country is in a state of mourning," she said before casting her vote. "Some of us must say, 'Let's step back for a moment. Let's just pause just for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.'"
Just after casting the lone dissenting vote, Lee told KQED that some friends and colleagues had urged her to change her mind and support the war authorization, "They said, ‘Barbara, you can not let this one red light (signifying a "no" vote) stay up on that where you've got to change it. This is going to kill you literally, and your political life."
But she stood her ground, and her vote against the war has stood the test of time, as the U.S. did in fact get mired in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, costing thousands of lives, with little to show for it. In a blatant indication of defeat, Pres. Joe Biden in 2021 withdrew U.S. troops under violent, chaotic conditions, after the U.S.-backed president fled the country, leaving it under the control of Taliban, much as it had been when the U.S. entered the conflict two decades earlier.
In her bid to replace Feinstein, who is 89 and has faced questions about her mental fitness, Lee, who will be 78 next November, will also have to overcome the issue of age.
"I don't think it's a question just of chronological age as much as attitude in relationship to the status quo," said Phillips of Democracy in Color. "For young people I think, it's who's the biggest challenger to the status quo."
For young people I think, it's who's the biggest challenger to the status quo.
At times Lee has used her credibility with the Democratic Party’s most liberal members to build bridges with moderates. After the bitter Democratic presidential primary in 2016 left supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders angry toward the Democratic establishment and nominee Hillary Clinton, Lee helped mend the intraparty fissures that erupted at the Democratic National Convention that year, by hosting a unity event with Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Perhaps Lee’s biggest struggle of all will be raising enough money to compete with the likes of Schiff and Porter, who are both prolific fundraisers. According to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Lee ended 2022 with just $52,353 in her account. By comparison, Schiff ended the year with nearly $21 million while Porter had $7.4 million left after an expensive reelection campaign.
Before Lee formally announced her candidacy, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who served with Lee in the state Assembly decades ago, noted that fundraising was not her greatest strength.
"She has all kinds of problems raising money," he said. "She never will ask people for money. She doesn’t even ask me for money!"
But Ludovic Blain, director of the California Donor Table, a statewide fundraising organization that invests in communities of color, said he believes a variety of progressive donors will step forward to support her.
"Some of the same folks who supported folks like Stacey Abrams (in Georgia) on the other side of the country," he said. "So I think that there is money for her to raise both from larger donors and from regular folk around the state and around the country."
Phillips noted that while Schiff and Porter have larger national profiles than Lee does, she’ll stand out to many voters as the the only well-known candidate of color currently in the race.
"So the majority of voters in California are people of color," Phillips said. "Whoever California elects needs to represent, in particular, the communities of color that are under attack in our state and nationally from some of their would-be Senate colleagues."
But at the end of the day, Lee said in her 2018 KQED interview, "you have to be authentic."
"You have to really be able to let people know that you're there on their side and bring them in. And listen."
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