OAKLAND — Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, one of the party’s most outspoken progressive voices, will formally launch her campaign Monday to chair the House Democratic Caucus — a post that would make her the first African-American woman to hold a leadership spot in either major political party.
“When you look at the history of the Democratic Party and the Democratic leadership, African-American women…we’ve been the backbone of the Democratic Party — we should be in the face of leadership also,’’ Lee told POLITICO in an interview Sunday. Whether it comes to grassroots issues, or voter mobilization and political activism, she said, black women have long proven they can “lead not only our communities, but lead our country, on the very tough issues facing us.”
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Lee, first elected to Congress in 1998 in one of the nation’s most liberal bastions, argues she has a long record as a coalition-builder who has dedicated her career to issues of concern to both poor urban and rural voters. As the party prepares for the 2020 election cycle, the California congresswoman said, “these are issues that we can all unify around, like jobs and economic growth,’’ poverty, education and health care.
“The strength of our caucus lies in our diversity of experiences and ideas,’’ Lee said in a letter to be released Monday to her congressional colleagues announcing her bid. “Whether it’s working across the aisle to enact HIV/AIDS laws, or bringing the Sanders and Clinton campaigns together behind a cohesive and progressive Democratic platform, my career has been dedicated to finding common ground and delivering results.”
The announcement by Lee, who represents Oakland and the East Bay’s 13th Congressional District, sets up a battle with another Californian, Rep. Linda Sanchez. Sanchez last week announced her intention to seek the post now up for grabs with the defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, who was defeated in a June primary upset by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Southern California-based Sanchez, the sister of former California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, became vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus after defeating Lee by two votes in 2016 for the spot. The two will vie again after the midterm elections for the party’s fourth-most important leadership position — a post charged with communicating messages to every Democratic House member.
Lee came to national prominence after being the sole vote in the House in opposition to authorization of the use of force in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. That stance — widely criticized at the time — and her unfailingly progressive profile has earned her the staunch loyalty of her overwhelmingly Democratic district, where “Barbara Lee Speaks For Me” bumper stickers are commonplace.
But Lee has also gotten enthusiastic backing for her leadership bid from colleagues in diverse parts of the country — including Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.
“I’m very excited about her in a leadership role…She would be absolutely the best choice,’’ said Schakowsky, who told POLITICO Sunday she is actively campaigning on behalf of Lee for the post. She cited Lee’s “gutsy” leadership on issues like pushing for AIDS/HIV federal funding during the Bush administration, a move which “has saved millions of lives” in Africa, and for being outspoken on foreign affairs.
Behind the scenes, Schakowsky said, Lee has long been “a real doer,’’ with an “uplifting” and positive style that has benefited her party, such as when she served as a mediator between two bitterly opposed Democratic groups in the 2016 platform fight. “That is a role that Barbara Lee plays with finesse and elegance, making it all happen,’’ Schakowsky said.
Republicans have been quick to jump on speculation about Lee’s interest in a House leadership post, with some suggesting that Lee’s vote against authorization in 2001, along with her work to help normalize relations with Cuba, could make her an easy target for the GOP as the party heads toward 2020.
“Lee as Chairwoman might surpass @NancyPelosi or @KeithEllison as the most gaffe-prone member of Dem leadership — and that’s a high bar,’’ tweeted Jack Pandol, Western regional press secretary for National Republican Congressional Committee, last month.
Lee says she isn’t worried about being in the GOP’s sights. “They’re always going to do that,’’ she said. “I am who I am — but I’m certainly not an extremist.”
The Oakland congresswoman says that as the daughter of a WWII and Korean war veteran who was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, she has the tools needed to address those more conservative and crucial voters who may have cast ballots for President Obama, and have abandoned the party for President Trump.
“Poverty affects everyone: rural, urban, people of color and white working class,’’ she said. “We have a lot more in common that not…and the Republicans and Donald Trump have tried to divide us.”
“But when you listen to, and talk to white working class men who have lost jobs, I feel their pain,’’ she said. “Because in African-American communities, we get that….I know many Trump districts and rural districts and I know how people are struggling and suffering,’’ she said. “It’s about communicating that, and that’s what I want to do — bring people together.”
Lee, at 72, also says she recognizes critics in the party who have criticized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s continued leadership and who suggest a new generation of younger Democrats are needed to rise to such prominent posts.
But, she said, “millennials and young people know my record — it’s really about our ideas, how we engage with people and how we listen to what the new generation is saying to us,’’ she said.
The key is to “make sure we open up the paths of opportunity to everyone,’’ she said. “I’m right there in terms of generational input and understanding that the path is important — but we have to build on that and mentor young people, and younger members and open up space so members can move up.”
Already, Lee has already won kudos from some of the younger voices on the Democratic progressive front. Ocasio-Cortez, who has quickly emerged as a prominent progressive voice, is among them: she recently expressed admiration for Lee, saying she was not inclined to back Nancy Pelosi as Speaker should Democrats take back the House in November, but asked: “Is Barbara Lee available?”
Rep. Ro Khanna, the freshman Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, said recently that if Lee ran, he would work hard to win her the backing of the entire 78-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which he is a member.
“I think she’d be terrific. We’ve never had an African-American woman in the leadership in this party. And look at who won us the Doug Jones seat [in Alabama], look at who the most mobilized constituency has been — it’s been women, of course, and African American women,” he said. “And it’s about time that an African-American woman is in leadership and I can’t think of a better person than Barbara Lee. I mean she has really become an icon in Congress. Even Republicans admire her sheer guts for opposing the war vote.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.