Barbara Lee, once a young Shirley Chisholm staffer, aims to take fight to US Senate

TheGrio’s “Running Black” election series profiles Black candidates running for office in the 2024 elections. If successful, each candidate profiled could make history in their state. Hear from them in their own words about what’s at stake in their races, for the country, and for Black and brown communities on the political margin.

As a veteran U.S. member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has lived a life of public service for over three decades. Through many years of leadership and legislating, Lee, 77, garnered the respect of Washington, D.C., her home state of California, and the city of Oakland. 

Now, Lee aims to advance her political career as she competes in the California U.S. Senate primary. The Tuesday contest will determine which candidates advance to the general election on Nov. 5.

Lee, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 26 years, faces a crowded field of Senate hopefuls to fill the vacant seat once held by the late Senator Dianne Feinstein. The seat is temporarily being filled by the Senate’s lone Black woman, Laphonza Butler.

Lee garnered the support of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, entertainers like Michael Moore, Sheryl Lee Ralph, John Legend, Jamie Foxx, and Stevie Wonder, and other influential figures  whom she calls “trusted messengers.”

“Getting people to the polls is what it takes, and I’m honored to have their support,” Lee told theGrio. 

Her life of service and politics dates back to when she was a college student working on the historic 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm. The former Black Panther Party worker (she handed out newsletters for the organization’s Oakland chapter as a volunteer) later worked in the congressional office of then-U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif, who later supported her efforts to succeed him in Congress after his retirement in 1997.

Lee confidently and matter-of-factly told theGrio she is “the most experienced in this race,” which includes fellow Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Katie Porter, D-Calif., and Republican candidate Steve Garvey, a former Major League Baseball star. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – OCTOBER 26: Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Washington on October 26, 2023.(Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I come with the lens and perspective that is missing in the United States Senate having had many experiences, challenges, and overcome many obstacles,” she shared.  

If elected to the Senate, Lee wants to challenge issues of inequity and the “affordability crisis.”

“We haven’t addressed the systemic issues as they relate to poverty,” she said. “We haven’t dealt with the issues of income inequality,” including a plan to “eliminate barriers to public housing.” She added, “We haven’t really dealt with racial injustice and the wealth gap.”  

Lee said she wants to reorder California’s budget priorities and restructure the process to end the long-standing issue of income inequality and poverty.

Advocating for vulnerable populations is personal for Congresswoman Lee, who has often attempted to use her personal story as a testimony for others. She recalled relying on public assistance as a young mom because she “didn’t have enough money for childcare.” Instead, Lee would bring her children to class while enrolled in college. 

“I have turned these challenges into public policy,” said Lee, who acknowledged how particular plights have outsized impacts on Black women. 

If elected, Lee would join a shortlist of Black women to serve in the U.S. Senate. While she would not be the first woman or woman of color to represent California in the upper chamber of Congress, following Vice President Kamala Harris, she would only be the second Black woman to do so.

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Making history is not new to Lee, who made headlines after she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force in September 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the following years, she led congressional efforts to repeal the practice of issuing blank checks for endless wars.

Lee’s life has not been easy, yet she continued to serve despite her personal trials. The congresswoman recalled being unhoused “for a period of time” and is a domestic violence survivor. The congresswoman also publicly divulged that she had obtained an abortion in an effort to sway public opinion and the Supreme Court from abandoning the half-century-old precedent established by Roe v. Wade.

Her relationship with the late Shirley Chisholm, who served in Congress for nearly 15 years, was of particular inspiration and influence. Lee was one of those closest to Chisholm, a political icon. Though Chisholm did not have much money for her presidential campaign, Lee was one of many young people who stood by Chisholm during her uphill run for president.

On special occasions, Congresswoman Lee wears items that once belonged to Chisholm. The momentos were left to her by Chisholm in salute to Lee’s fierce fight for equality. Those items, for some, could signify today how Lee is carrying the mantle of unfinished work of a Black female political giant.

Given that one out of 100 Senate seats on Capitol Hill has ever been occupied by a Black woman, Lee sees her Senate campaign as much bigger than herself and her three-decade-long political career. 

“[I want to] fight for people who haven’t had a voice and haven’t been seen,” said Lee, “and that is a lot of people in California.”

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TheGrio’s “Running Black” election series features profiles of Black candidates running for office in the 2024 elections, highlighting their potential to make history. Rep. Barbara Lee, a veteran U.S. member of Congress, is competing in the California U.S. Senate primary, aiming to fill the vacant seat once held by Senator Dianne Feinstein. She has garnered support from influential figures and aims to address issues of inequity and affordability, drawing from her personal experiences of relying on public assistance as a young mom.

If elected, Lee would join a shortlist of Black women in the U.S. Senate and continue her legacy of challenging the status quo, including her historic vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001. Despite personal struggles like being unhoused and surviving domestic violence, Lee remains committed to public service and advocating for vulnerable populations. Inspired by her mentor Shirley Chisholm, Lee sees her Senate campaign as a platform to fight for those who haven’t been heard, embodying the legacy of the political icon.

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