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In California’s crowded primary, can a longtime congresswoman sell her progressive ideals to the mainstream?

By Emily Witt, The New Yorker — 

Los Angeles’s Kingdom Day Parade is billed as one of the oldest and largest celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s birthday in the country, held each year in the morning on Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard in Leimert Park, a neighborhood in South L.A. This year, it was chilly but sunny along the parade route; families had set up camping chairs and picnic blankets, meat smokers had been rolled out onto front lawns, and the piano notes of Mary J. Blige’s “I Love You” rang out from a bicycle-mounted speaker. The Los Angeles All City marching band and color guard kicked things off, followed by dancers in bright, whirling skirts from the Cathedral City High School Ballet Folklorico. Karen Bass, the city’s first elected Black female mayor, called out greetings with a microphone from the back of a vintage convertible.

Earlier that morning, Barbara Lee, the Democratic congresswoman from the Bay Area, who is currently running to represent California in the United States Senate, attended a King Day breakfast sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Under a tent near the end of the parade route, members of the Hollywood Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, and other unions sat at folding tables, eating from a buffet of sausage, eggs, and grits. Lee, who is the highest-ranking Black woman currently serving in the House, wore a T-shirt that said “Elect Black Women” under a blue puffer vest embroidered with the logo of the Congressional Black Caucus, which she chaired from 2009 to 2011. Laphonza Butler, the U.S. senator appointed by California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, last year to finish out the late Dianne Feinstein’s term, was there, along with Mayor Bass, who gave a quick speech reminding the assembled union members to vote. After breakfast, Lee posed for a photo with Butler, Bass, and several other Black women holding office in California. “Who runs the world?” someone shouted out, quoting Beyoncé. “Girls!” the group chimed in response. Off to the side, Adam Schiff, the L.A.-area congressman, who is one of Lee’s Democratic rivals in the Senate race, spoke with a few potential voters.

King’s legacy is an important one to Lee, who is best known nationally for her long opposition to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. She had been in Congress for three years when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11th. Three days later, she was the sole member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legislation that granted President George W. Bush broad powers to initiate the war in Afghanistan and U.S. military interventions in many other countries, too. In the House that day, Lee said that she had relied on “my moral compass, my conscience, and my gut for direction,” and quoted Nathaniel Baxter, the dean of the National Cathedral, who had spoken at the National Prayer Service earlier that morning: “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Lee received death threats in return. She said that she also received a phone call from King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who told her that King would have been proud.

The Saturday before the parade, I met Lee at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. In its historic lobby, tables were set with rose-painted teacups for afternoon tea. Lee arrived dressed in a purple suit jacket and black slacks. She is small in stature, with close-cropped hair, and speaks with a Southern twang. We sat at a table off to the side of the tearoom, and the security guard with whom she was travelling brought her a coffee in a paper cup.

“It really shocked me that I got all these death threats and was called a traitor,” Lee told me of the reaction to her vote in 2001. “But what was worse than anything was that people didn’t understand that central to our democracy is the requirement to offer a different point of view if we think that the mainstream point of view is not what’s gonna keep us safe and secure.”

In the years that followed, Lee continued to advocate for political and diplomatic solutions to America’s conflicts abroad. She voted against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, and introduced bills attempting to repeal the 2001 authorization. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on to a cost of trillions of dollars in taxpayer money, and the authorization was invoked for military interventions in Libya, Syria, and other countries, her once-controversial views became more mainstream; in recent years bipartisan majorities in Congress have voted to repeal the 2002 authorization of use of military force in Iraq, but the law still stands. Lee, who grew up in a military family, has said that she is not a pacifist, and she has voted in favor of military support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. But in her 2008 memoir, “Renegade for Peace and Justice,” she wrote that “under the Bush administration we became oppressive, threatening thugs who told our friends that our insular view of world politics was the only view and that there would be consequences for not following our lead.” Through this stance, she continued, “we have become diplomatic and political pariahs around the globe.”

Lee’s ability to take unpopular positions has been possible in part because of her widespread support in her congressional district, which encompasses Berkeley and Oakland, where she was routinely reëlected with more than eighty per cent of the vote. But many of the policies for which she has advocated in recent years—Medicare for All, student-debt cancellation, marijuana-conviction relief, a national rent-control standard, and a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which restricts government funding for abortion—have become, like her views of American military policy abroad, more mainstream. Her run for Senate might serve as an indicator of how progressive Democrats in California really are—and how divided over America’s support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza following Hamas’s attack on October 7th.

For now, it appears that Lee hasn’t registered as a serious contender with many voters. On March 5th, in California’s open primary, voters will be able to cast a ballot for any candidate, and the top two vote-getters will proceed to the general election in November. A poll conducted in early January by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, showed Schiff in the lead, with Katie Porter, the Democratic congresswoman from Orange County, behind him. That poll showed Lee in fourth place, just after Steve Garvey, a legendary former first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, who is running on the Republican ticket.

“I’ve always been behind in the polls,” she told me with a laugh. “People just don’t know me because I’m not on television all the time like my opponents.” She points to Bernie Sanders’s victory in the 2020 California Democratic Presidential primary, and Karen Bass’s defeat of the billionaire real-estate developer Rick Caruso in the L.A. mayoral election in 2022, as indicators that California voters lean left when given the chance.

But in this race, according to an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle, the three leading Democratic candidates, all of whom are giving up their seats in Congress to run, have voted the same way in the House ninety-four per cent of the time. Until October 7th, Lee’s antiwar record might have been little more than a historical footnote. Now that there is escalating conflict in the Middle East, however, a clear point of difference has emerged: Lee called for a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on October 8th. Schiff has stuck to President Biden’s stance that “Israel has the right to defend itself and the U.S. must do all it can to assist Israel as it protects its citizens,” as he put it in a press release the same day. And in December Porter, who had previously supported a “humanitarian pause,” began calling for a “bilateral ceasefire,” perhaps reading the political winds as the war became an increasingly divisive issue for Democrats.

Mohamed Younis, the editor-in-chief of Gallup, which conducts polls on American political opinion, told me that foreign policy has only rarely ranked high in the concerns of the American electorate, but that their data show voters are paying close attention to the situation in Israel and Gaza. “For people running in local elections, particularly in more liberal parts of the country, it’s a really important thing for a considerable number of Democrat voters in this cycle,” Younis said. Gallup has found that a majority of Democrats, sixty-three per cent, say they disapprove of the military action unfolding in Gaza right now and that fifty-five per cent believe that not enough humanitarian aid is going to the Palestinians. He added that of all the subjects in which Gallup asked Democrats about President Biden’s performance, his lowest approval ratings came in response to his handling of the situation in the Middle East. “It really paints a picture that this topic has hit a nerve with a lot of Democrats and not in a way that’s helping President Biden,” Younis said.

While tourists began filtering into the Biltmore tearoom for their petit fours, Lee condemned Hamas and elaborated on her call for a ceasefire. “I believe that Israel deserves to be secure,” she said. “And I also know that what is taking place now, in terms of the horrific deaths, is not going to allow for a pathway to a diplomatic and political solution that would lead to peace and security.” She called Israel’s bombing and ground invasion of Gaza “a humanitarian catastrophe,” and said that it would only serve to radicalize another generation and lead to a “Hamas 2.0.” “And so yes, I called for a ceasefire early because I can see what is taking place,” she said. “I’m concerned about the possible outbreak of a regional war. This has got to stop quickly.”

Where voters might not be motivated by the war abroad, Lee is leaning into her life story. “I know what it’s like to be discriminated against, and to not be seen as a Black woman in America,” she told me. Lee was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1946, when it was still segregated. When her mother, pregnant with Lee, went to the whites-only hospital for her delivery, she was initially denied treatment; she went through labor on a bed in a hallway. Her parents, to avoid the segregated public schools in their district, sent Lee and her two sisters to a Catholic girls’ school, where they were among the few Black students. “There was no such thing as a Black history curriculum back then,” Lee would later write in her memoir. “When slavery was discussed, we had the shared experience of everyone turning and looking at us as the modern repository for history.”

Lee’s family moved to Pacoima, California, in the San Fernando valley of Los Angeles, in 1960. In a story she often repeats on the campaign trail, at the age of fifteen she enlisted the help of the N.A.A.C.P. in a successful campaign to become the first Black cheerleader for San Fernando High School. But Lee’s adolescence was complicated—soon after joining the cheerleading squad, she found out she was pregnant. On the urging of her family, she married her boyfriend, Carl Lee, in secret, and they stayed together even after she had a miscarriage. When she became pregnant again soon after, she travelled across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juarez for an illegal abortion so that she could finish high school. Today she points out that sepsis from underground abortions was a leading cause of death for young Black women at the time.

By her early twenties, Lee was divorced with two children, living in the Bay Area, and enrolled at Mills College. She spent the next several years in a violent domestic partnership, which she attributes in part to patterns of violence she witnessed as a child in her mother’s relationships. “I was on public assistance raising two small children, as a survivor of domestic violence,” she told me. “I had to take my kids to class in college because I could not afford childcare.” Through government assistance, she received food stamps, health care, and a hud loan that helped her buy her first house. “I’m the only candidate that understands that,” she said.

Lee’s twenties were also a time of self-education and inquiry. She was a community activist with the Black Panther Party, which led to her being placed under surveillance by the F.B.I. She was inspired to work in politics after hearing Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman, speak at Mills. She told me that she was looking forward to an upcoming bio-pic about Chisholm, who ran for President in 1972 under the slogan, “Unbought and unbossed.” In the movie, which is directed by John Ridley, there is a character based on Lee, who was a campaign coördinator for Chisholm during her 1972 run, played by the actress Christina Jackson. (“I’ve met her, and it was like meeting myself,” Lee said.)

Aside from running a facilities-management business for a few years, Lee has spent most of her career in politics. In 1975, after completing a master’s degree in social work at the University of California, Berkeley, Lee went to work for Ron Dellums, a Black congressman from Oakland known for his opposition to the war in Vietnam, eventually becoming his chief of staff. When Dellums retired, in 1998, Lee won a special election to replace him in Congress, and she has been there ever since. “Experience matters,” is how Lee dispatches criticisms from Porter’s campaign that she and Schiff are out-of-touch career politicians because of their long tenures in Congress (Schiff has served since 2001).

For most of Lee’s time in the House, the California Senate seats were held by two Bay Area political veterans, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. When Boxer retired in 2016, and Kamala Harris declared her candidacy for the vacated seat, Lee didn’t run, telling me she didn’t want to undercut the chances of another Black woman. After Harris left the Senate to become Vice-President, Governor Newsom appointed Alex Padilla to take her place, leaving the Senate without a single Black woman. As she campaigns, Lee will often point out that Black women have held office in the Senate for less than eleven years since 1789, despite being one of the most loyal demographics of voters for the Democratic Party for decades. Last September, when Feinstein died in office, Newsom was held to a promise he had made to appoint a Black woman. Prior to Feinstein’s death, in a tricky political calculus, Newsom had said it would not be Lee, who had already declared her candidacy. The Governor claimed that he didn’t want to influence the Senate primary. Lee responded, in a statement, that “the idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting.” (Lee has said that she was not referring to not being chosen, but speaking generally.) After Feinstein’s death, the Congressional Black Caucus wrote Newsom a letter urging him to choose Lee. When he appointed Laphonza Butler, she left her job as president of emily’s List to become only the third Black woman senator in U.S. history but has decided not to enter the race.

Newsom hasn’t endorsed a candidate, but much of California’s congressional delegation, including Nancy Pelosi, has backed Adam Schiff, along with many unions. Dolores Huerta, the ninety-three-year-old co-founder of the United Farm Workers, endorsed Lee, but after meeting with each of the candidates, the union itself lined up behind Schiff. (Antonio De Loera-Brust, the communications director for the U.F.W., told me that the union had “immense respect” for Lee, but that “Adam Schiff is just really connecting with working-class Latino constituencies.”) Pelosi appointed Schiff as a manager in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate in 2020, raising his political profile, and his presence on the committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol has given him further national prominence. As Lee has observed, Schiff is a frequent presence on cable news, and has embraced a platform that aligns with the mainstream of the Democratic Party, such as supporting a “public option” for health care rather than Medicare for All.

Lee’s more direct rival for the progressive vote in California is Katie Porter. At fifty, she is the youngest of the three leading Democratic candidates, and often emphasizes that she is one of the only single mothers of school-aged children in Congress, a struggle that she describes in detail in her 2023 memoir, “I Swear: Politics is Messier than my Minivan.” Like Schiff, Porter is an alumnus of Harvard Law School, where Elizabeth Warren became a mentor. She previously worked as a consumer-protection advocate, and has cast herself as a reformer focussed on the structural issues that have allowed corporations to influence lawmaking. She claims that she is the only candidate in the race who has never taken corporate pac money, and that her relative inexperience (she has only five years in office) makes her less complacent. She often highlights her opposition to political earmarks in her campaign as a sign of integrity; Lee, meanwhile, has said that she uses earmarks to support organizations and projects by people who are otherwise disenfranchised from the political process.

“We were excited to have two legitimate, strong, progressive women candidates that were running for the U.S. Senate,” Jane Kim, the California director of the Working Families Party, said. The Party decided to endorse Lee after what Kim called a difficult process of choosing. “Ultimately, I think what resonated for our members in regards to Barbara Lee was just her longer history of governing in California.”

Lee is seventy-seven years old, and running for the Senate in an era in which the refusal to retire has marred the legacy of otherwise distinguished careers. The deaths of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dianne Feinstein in office left disarray in their wakes, but that has not dissuaded Pelosi, who, at eighty-three, is seeking her nineteenth term in office. Lee dismisses concerns that the Senate would benefit from having someone younger in office. “No, I tell people that you want me at that table,” she said. “You want me sitting there dealing with these senators eyeball to eyeball because of my experience, and they’re not going to get away with anything because I know them.”

Some of the voters most drawn to Lee are younger people who feel their concerns have not been met by more centrist Democratic policies. One night in January, Lee attended a small gathering of young Latino leaders and interested voters at a coffee shop in East Los Angeles called Mexes Cafe. The event was organized by a thirty-three-year-old Lee supporter named Danielle Guillen, who described herself as a descendant of Mexican immigrants who settled in California’s Imperial Valley. Guillen, now living in L.A., told me that the age issue is not on her mind. “I think she has a similar mind-set of how to do policy work as a lot of the younger generations, particularly younger generations of color,” she said. Guillen had dressed for the event in a pink blazer and crystal heart earrings. “I’m nervous,” she said, before introducing Lee, who responded, “Well, you look gorgeous!”

Some of the attendees wore their progressive politics on their sleeves: one had on a T-shirt illustrated with an upraised middle finger over the word “gentrification.” The first speaker, a policy director with the Los Angeles Unified School District named Yaquelin Perez, thanked Lee for her support for a ceasefire in Gaza. Others in the room snapped their fingers in support. A twenty-seven-year-old named Emmanuel Alcantar, who works for a non-profit organization focussed on climate change, told me that he was deciding between Porter and Lee. “I think especially as a young person, we really care about leadership early on,” he said, citing Lee’s 2001 vote. He was curious to learn how Lee’s leadership style would be adjusted for the more individual culture of the Senate.

The first debate in the race took place a week later, on a rainy Monday at the U.S.C. campus, in Los Angeles. Students wearing kaffiyehs handed out flyers in front of the auditorium where the debate was being held, calling for a ceasefire. Inside, the audience was encouraged to confine any demonstrations to “the designated rainy areas outside of the auditorium,” as an introductory speaker put it. The fear of a disruption was likely informed by what had happened at a candidates’ forum during the state Democratic Convention in November, when pro-Palestinian protesters had shouted down Schiff and Porter. Lee, who had been greeted by the protesters with applause, received a plurality of the votes in a near-tie with Schiff, but the convention had ended without anyone receiving the sixty-per-cent majority necessary for a party endorsement.

The debate at U.S.C. was largely a chance for the candidates to assert their identities: Lee, as a politician motivated by conscience; Schiff, as a committed adversary of Trump; Porter, as the foil of corporations; and Garvey as a former baseball player. The night was laden with baseball puns. After Garvey refused to say whether he would support Trump in the general election, Porter quipped back: “Once a Dodger, always a Dodger.” “That was a swing and a miss,” Schiff tried following up, to groans and guffaws from the room.

On the debate stage, Porter had comedic timing and pithy responses, hammering home her mantra that nothing will get done in Washington until the political process is no longer a pay-to-play system. Lee, in contrast, had a tendency to fall back on talking points. Schiff played the competent pragmatist—as he put it in the spin room afterward, “what Californians care more about than purity tests is who can deliver”—but his answers didn’t always seem to meet the urgency of the moment. He responded to a student’s question about how to afford rent in L.A. after graduation with policy suggestions about an expansion of Section 8 vouchers and a “renter’s tax credit to help renters stay housed.” When Lee shone, it was when she was speaking off the cuff. After Garvey told a story of going to the “inner city” and “touching” unhoused people, Lee interrupted the moderator to remark on how “patronizing” he had been, causing the audience to break the no-applause rule. “As someone who has been unsheltered, I could not believe how he described his walk,” she said.

At the Biltmore, Lee spoke of King’s belief that the three evils the country had to confront were militarism, racism, and poverty. “Those are still the three evils,” Lee said. I asked her what she would do if she lost in March. “I don’t even think about that,” she said. “I have only so much bandwidth, and it’s about winning.”

Source: The New Yorker
Featured image: Barbara Lee (Photograph by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / The Washington Post / Getty)


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.