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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Maanvi Singh

Barbara Lee’s idealism inspires loyalty in her district. Can it carry her to the Senate?

a smiles as she holds her hands out at a lectern
Barbara Lee kicks off her Senate campaign in Oakland, California, in February last year. She calls her Bay Area district ‘the wokest district in the country’. Photograph: Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty Images

Barbara Lee has never lost an election.

That is quite a feat, given that she has built a career championing unpopular, even radical causes.

Two decades ago, she was famously the only member of Congress to vote against giving the president broad, open-ended war powers following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She received hate mail and death threats from all over the country in response. Before joining Congress, she was one of the only members of the state legislature to challenge California’s “three strikes” law, which escalated sentences for people with prior felonies. She got death threats then, too.

Through it all, her congressional district in Oakland and Berkeley, which Lee calls “the wokest district in the country”, has remained loyal to her, repeatedly re-electing her with more than 80% of the vote. In more than two decades in the House, Lee, 77, has become the highest-ranking Black woman in the chamber. As her aspirations turn to the US Senate, however, she may be poised to lose an election for the first time.

Lee’s campaign has consistently lagged behind those of two House Democratic colleagues – Katie Porter of Orange county, and Adam Schiff of Los Angeles. More recent polls have also found her trailing the Republican Steve Garvey, a former baseball star of the LA Dodgers. Schiff entered 2024 with $35m in campaign funds and Porter had $13m – Lee has lagged, with just $816,000 in the bank as of January. In the state’s non-partisan primary system, only the top two candidates will advance to the general election in November.

As millions of Californians start filling out their primary ballots, Lee said she has given “no thought at all” to the possibility that she might lose.

“I have a record of being on the right side of issues – and fighting for that,” she said. And that, she said, “resonates with the majority of Californians”.


While Schiff and Porter both made a name for themselves during the Trump presidency – the former is famous for leading the first impeachment effort against Donald Trump, while the latter became nationally known for wielding a whiteboard against hapless conservative appointees – Lee has spent her decades in the House assiduously forwarding progressive policies.

“She didn’t come on MSNBC every other day,” Ro Khanna, the Silicon Valley congressman who is co-chairing Lee’s campaign, told the Guardian soon after she launched her campaign last year. Lee doesn’t have the same name recognition, or the funds her opponents have, he said. “But she has a record of being an iconic progressive champion.”

In an election where the leading Democratic candidates have nearly identical voting records, Lee’s political idealism could be what distinguishes her campaign, or what dooms it.

Notably, she was the first to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. On 8 October – as Israel’s military prepared to lay siege to the Gaza Strip following the 7 October attack by Hamas – she called on the world to come together to “try to stop the escalation”.

Porter initially declined to take the stance, before eventually coming out in favour of a “bilateral ceasefire”; Schiff still opposes one.

“I don’t think you have to temper your message,” Lee said. “Because authenticity is extremely important for voters.”

Her thought process now, she added, is very similar to what it was post-9/11, when she opposed the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that gave George W Bush sweeping anti-terrorism war powers, warning that military retaliation could spiral out of control.

Back then, her views alienated her from members of her own party. Decades later, both Democrats and Republicans have expressed regret over the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “She was right. I was wrong,” Bernie Sanders said at a debate during his presidential run in 2019. “So was everybody else in the House.”

Often, her ideas on domestic policy have been equally audacious – and prescient. She was an early proponent of Medicare for all in 2003, a position that has since gained momentum among Democrats and progressives. Last month, she made headlines discussing a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $50 an hour – seven times the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. She defended the idea, citing a United Way report funding that a yearly income of $127,000 was, as she said, “just barely enough” for a family in the Bay Area. Her fellow Democrats have backed a more modest (but perhaps equally improbable in Congress) proposal to increase the minimum to $20 0r $25.

“I don’t think candidates should moderate their positions, because authenticity is extremely important for voters,” she said. “I’ve been consistent over the years even if I have to stand alone.”


As much as her ideals may have isolated her on Capitol Hill, they have been embraced in Oakland and Berkeley. After her 2001 stand against the AUMF, she was re-elected to her office with 81% of the vote.

“Here in the Bay Area, we have deep anti-war roots, spanning back to the Vietnam era,” said Aimee Allison, president and founder of the advocacy group She the People. A former combat medic, Allison left the military with an honourable discharge as a conscientious objector, during the Gulf war. “Barbara Lee is coming out of that grand tradition.”

Lee was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in southern California. But it was in Oakland the the Bay Area, in the birthplace of the Black Panthers and the centre of the peace movement, that she came of political age. “We’re the heart and soul of the peace and justice movement,” Lee said. “And a lot of my understanding and clarity on issues around national security and the defence budget come directly from the Bay Area.”

Lee landed there after leaving an abusive relationship, two young children in tow, and was for a stint unhoused, floating between motels. “I understand the housing crisis in a way that probably a lot of senators don’t,” she said.

Eventually, she enrolled as a student at Oakland’s Mills college, and began volunteering at the Black Panthers’ Community Learning Center. Back then, she didn’t believe in the national political system, which had repeatedly harmed and failed Black and minority Americans. “I was an activist. I was a revolutionary,” she said in an interview with the Kennedy presidential library. “I was not going to register to vote; there was no way I was going to get involved in politics.”

Then Lee met Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress – and in 1972, the first woman of colour to run for president. And she found a politician who spoke to her. Lee signed on to work for Chisholm’s presidential campaign, and then started working for the congressman Ron Dellums – the firebrand anti-war activist and anti-apartheid campaigner.

In 1990, she ran for office herself. “She was asking about the seat through the 12 years I was in it,” said Elihu Harris, a former California representative who has been friends with Lee since college. “Like ‘move over, move over.’ It was a joke but she wanted to be in elected office.” When Harris stepped down as a representative to serve as Oakland mayor, Lee took his place. “It wasn’t even a close election,” Harris chuckled.

She was elected to the state senate, and then succeeded her mentor Dellums as a US congresswoman – serving 25 years. Now the activist and revolutionary who once refused to register to vote said she’s seeking a “larger megaphone” in the Senate.

If elected, she would be the third Black woman to serve in the chamber. Only nine Black people have ever served in the Senate, and only two – Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and the current vice-president, Kamala Harris – were women. “I made the decision to run because I think my voice as an African American woman, and my perspective, is needed there,” Lee said. “We’re really at a crossroads. And Black women really understand these crossroads – and how to fight and how to lift up those voices that haven’t been heard.”


Leftist and progressive groups have generally backed Lee over Porter, both of whom are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in large part due to her depth of experience.

Lee, at 77, has brushed off concerns that she is too old to seek office. Indeed, even in an election cycle where the advanced years of the leading candidates for president – and their mental fitness to serve – has been at top of mind for voters, Lee’s experience has especially appealed to younger voters and progressives.

“Even if she comes in third, or she comes in fourth, then I’m very happy to have voted for the only candidate who is actually working to stop a genocide,” said Jonah Gottlieb, a Democratic party delegate based in Berkeley. In early October, after Lee had called for a ceasefire, but before she had signed on to a ceasefire resolution put forward by other congressional progressives, Gottlieb joined more than two dozen Jewish constituents outside her Oakland office asking her to add her name to the bill.

A few days later, her staff met with them as well as Palestinian activists. On 18 October, she signed on to the resolution.

“I know that she has really good relationships with progressive organisations in California, and she will work really effectively with these grassroots movements, in a way that I haven’t seen from Katie Porter and certainly haven’t seen from Adam Schiff,” said Gottlieb.

Lee is also known to keep things copacetic in Congress – perhaps paradoxically, given her tendency to take tough stands.

“Everybody is OK with her,” said Julie Diaz Waters, a former intern and board member at Emerge California, a non-profit that recruits and trains Democratic women in politics. “Something I learned from her in terms of navigating relationships – is that you don’t try to make enemies in this game.” Lee has a habit of phoning her colleagues before a vote – to let them know that she won’t be supporting their legislation. “I call it stabbing in the front, not the back,” Waters said. “It’s a commitment to transparency. It’s a respectful way to operate.”

Though Lee doesn’t hold the centrist fidelity for bipartisanship, she does have a record of working with Republicans. “She’s pragmatic and she understands the legislative process, the political process,” said Harris. “So Barbara is always someone who’s willing to seek and find common ground.”

Less than two years after she dramatically rejected George W Bush’s request for legal authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of 9/11, Lee worked with him on the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) – the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in the world.

Bush has since made the multibillion-dollar program one of his defining legacies.

Lee kept working to improve the program, including to eliminate provisions pushing ineffective abstinence-only education and restricting outreach to sex workers. In the Senate, Lee said, she remains dedicated to fighting for reproductive rights and freedoms, against a tide of restrictive policies across the US.

“I’ve lived this, so I know,” said Lee, who has been open about her own back-alley abortion in Mexico. She was 16 at the time, and the Roe v Wade case establishing a right to abortions had yet to be ruled.

“As someone who comes from a community that has been discriminated against – historically we had to fight for all of our freedoms,” she said. “This is in my DNA.”

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