By Jessica Washington
It may surprise you that there are currently no Black women in the United States Senate. But Representative Barbara Lee is running to change that.
Lee officially announced she was running for California Senator Diane Feinstein’s senate seat last month. If she wins, Lee would be the third Black woman Senator and the only sitting Black woman in the Senate.
Lee sat down with The Root to discuss her run and why she thinks the Senate needs her voice.
“The Senate needs my perspective,” says Lee. “Someone who has been a champion of progressive values…and in fact been able to turn a lot of my lived experiences as a woman as an African American woman, a woman of color, into public policy.”
Only two Black women have ever served in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Carol Moseley. Lee says that Black women’s experiences intersect deeply with the core issues in our country, but for far too long, we’ve been excluded from the halls of power.
“Black women have stood in the gap throughout our history,” says Lee. “And we are not standing in the gap now in the Senate, and we need to be there.”
Lee says her run is about far more than representation for Black women. Economic and racial inequality, reproductive justice, environmental justice, policing, housing, and child care, are all issues Lee says she would focus on in the Senate.
Barbara Lee Faces a Tough Democratic Primary
But to get there, Lee would have to win a crowded primary race. Her opponents, Representatives Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, are well-funded and have significant backing from influential Democrats.
Former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Schiff, and Senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed Porter. And although it’s early days, they’re polling significantly ahead of Lee.
But Lee says people shouldn’t count her out of the race anytime soon.
“When you at Mayor Karen Bass, for example, she raised over $9 million. Her opponent raised over 100 million,” says Lee referencing Bass’s victory in the Los Angelos Mayoral race over Real Estate Developer Rick Caruso. “It’s about how you connect with voters.”
Aimee Allison, Founder of She The People, a California-based group focused on electing women of color, says underestimating Lee would be a mistake.
“Money in California is not everything, it’s important, but there’s more to the story,” says Allison, who endorsed Lee. “She’s known statewide; she’s especially revered in Northern California for her long record of services.”
Key endorsements from Democrats with a lot of name recognition in California will be crucial, says Allison, especially since Pelosi and Warren have already thrown their hats into the ring. Allison says an endorsement from a household name in California, like fellow-progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, would help even out of the playing field.
But Lee does have backing from within the state. Yesterday, Los Angelos Mayor Karen Bass officially endorsed Lee.
How Lee Helped Mentor The Next Generation
Lee also has support from among the younger generation of progressives in Congress. The Root spoke to Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who was incredibly excited about Lee’s decision to run.
“She has truly been an inspiration,” says Pressley. “And it is surreal to say that this is my big sister and someone that I can pick up the phone to call for sound counsel or simply sisterhood.”
Lee’s mentorship extends past Pressley. In 2020, she formed Representation Matters, a group that works to elect women of color to Congress and other political offices.
“Women of color, and Black women, especially, have a very difficult time raising money for campaigns, fundraising, and I’ve faced that now and I’ve faced that in the past,” says Lee. “And so I decided that with these young women of color coming in, I was gonna start an organization called Representation Matters.”
The Vote That Defined Her Career
Looking back at Lee’s decades in office, one vote tends to stick out. After 9/11, Lee was the lone vote against the Iraq war and extending Presidential war powers. At the time, she was heavily criticized, but she stands by her decision all these years later.
“Republicans and Democrats are joining me and trying to repeal both of these authorizations, but this has taken 20 years,” she says. “But they see now what I saw then that those two military authorizations will set the stage for the use of force in perpetuity.”
Abortion rights are another issue that Lee, who co-chairs the pro-choice caucus, has led in Congress. “The Dobbs decision and these abortion restrictions really impact African American women in a big way,” says Lee.
Over the last two decades, Lee has worked to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding of abortion, making the procedure less accessible for low-income people.
Her work on abortion access is personal. As a teenager, Lee received an abortion in Tijuana. She says she’s lucky to have survived, but many weren’t so fortunate. “We do not need to go back to days when abortions were unsafe and illegal because it’s very devastating in many ways.”
Despite the intense primary ahead, Lee says she’s fighting to win.
“We speak directly to the voters,” says Lee. “They know who I am. They understand I see them, I hear them, and I’m going to be their champion.”
The Inland Valley News coverage of local news in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.