U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee kicks off her Senate campaign

Age, perhaps more than any other issue, will inevitably loom large over Rep. Barbara Lee’s Senate campaign, which she officially... The post U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee kicks off her Senate campaign first appeared on NABJ Black News & Views.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee kicks off her Senate campaign

Age, perhaps more than any other issue, will inevitably loom large over Rep. Barbara Lee’s Senate campaign, which she officially kicked off Tuesday.

Lee is 76, and the person she’s hoping to replace, 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has for years faced questions about her mental acuity. President Joe Biden will be close to 82 years old on Election Day 2024, and is already facing questions from within the Democratic Party about whether he should push for another term. 

Fifth & Mission podcast: Barbara Lee Launches Her Senate Campaign

Lee told me in the first interview of her Senate campaign that the age question actually provides her an opening to talk about what she sees as her biggest asset as she competes against two better-funded rivals, Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff: her lived experience. 

“At this point in our history the Senate needs a senator like myself who can connect with voters because I know exactly what the majority of Californians really are dealing with each and every day because I’ve had many of those lived experiences,” Lee said.

Lee is a Black woman who grew up in the segregated South. She traveled to Mexico to have an abortion when she was 15 years old in the era before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized the procedure in the United States. She raised two children as a single mother on public assistance. She is a survivor of domestic violence. 

“When you look at issues that I’ve had to deal with all my life in terms of inequality, in terms of gender and racial discrimination, so many Californians deal with these issues each and every day,” Lee said. 

Lee pointed to how she has translated her life experiences into policy and advocacy. 

When she served in the California Legislature, she wrote the state’s Violence Against Women Act and other legislation focusing on domestic violence. She co-chairs the Majority Leader Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, where she advocated for expanding the expanded Child Tax Credit in the 2021 American Rescue Plan legislation. That led to a 46% decline in childhood poverty, according to a 2022 Census Bureau study. She’s been a lifelong advocate of reproductive rights.

“What I bring is not only my lived experiences, but my history of my progressive values and being able to turn my lived experiences into into policy initiatives, and being able to get the job done for people to help make their lives better, to help lift people out of poverty and to help enhance the quality of life, which every Californian so deserves,” Lee said. 

Lee batted away concerns about her age — she’s got lots of energy, she said. And she pointed to the success of one of her longtime allies in the 2020 California presidential primary as proof that age doesn’t matter to California voters. Vermont Sen. 

“Bernie Sanders is older (81) than myself, and he won California,” Lee said. “It’s about speaking to the voters. If Bernie Sanders can win a primary in California, then Barbara Lee certainly can win to be the next United States senator. Come on.”

While Lee may bat away questions about her age, others won’t. Age will hover about the 2024 election season as long as Biden is on the top of the Democratic ticket — and especially if he winds up in a rematch against former President Donald Trump, 76. The only other top Republican to announce a presidential campaign, 51-year-old Republican Nikki Haley, nodded to age immediately: “It’s time for a new generation of leadership,” she said in her announcement. 

Last month, Lee’s supporters were telling donors concerned about her age that she would be a “transitional candidate,” suggesting she’s only opt for one term. 

“I don’t know who said that,” Lee told The Chronicle. “I’m going to be fighting in the Senate.” After our interview, a campaign spokesperson clarified that Lee is not pledging to serve only one term.

Then there’s the money challenge. Schiff starts the race with about $21 million cash on hand. Porter has $7.4 million left after a tough House race. She was the top Democratic House fundraiser in 2022, hauling in $25 million — $1 million more than Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi. Lee had $52,353 cash on hand, according to federal campaign finance reports. 

Part of the reason is that Lee hasn’t had to raise big money because she routinely wins her district with at least 80% of the vote. She redirects much of the money she has raised over the years to other candidates facing tougher challenges. 

That doesn’t necessarily explain the discrepancy, though.

Schiff also cruised to re-election in 2022, but raised $25 million last year, the product of a nationwide fundraising network that he has built over the past decade.

In 2020, Lee became the honorary chair of Representation Matters, a volunteer network of more than 1,000 donors and activists focused on helping women of color run for office. Formed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, it has raised more than $2 million for federal and state candidates, co-founder Dale Schroedel told me.

Lee, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is the group’s rainmaker. In the 2021 documentary “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” younger members of Congress, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., praised Lee as a role model.

But $2 million won’t go far in a race where some campaign strategists predict candidates will have to raise $50 million. Former California Sen. Barbara Boxer told me recently that Senate hopefuls “probably have to raise $80 million.” 

That will be a challenge for Lee. In a 2020 appearance on The Chronicle’s It’s All Political podcast, Lee said that for “for me to raise money, being a Black woman progressive, is 10 times harder than it is for anybody else.” 

On the eve of her Senate campaign launch, Lee acknowledged that “no question, there are hurdles for Black women to have to overcome. That’s the way the system so far is designed. The barriers are inherent. They’re systematic. OK, so what do we do? We have to overcome those barriers.”

She, like Schiff and Porter, promised not to accept donations from corporate political action committees in the Senate race.

Porter is one of just a dozen members of Congress to reject corporate PAC and lobbyist money in her House races. Lee has accepted some. “I don’t take much corporate PAC money either. I think we saw probably no more than 5%,” in her House campaign, she said.  Her 2022 contributions include $15,000 from Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s PAC, according to OpenSecrets.com. 

Schiff said that he will not take corporate PAC money in his Senate campaign, though he has taken it in the past. In 2022, he accepted $587,000 from individuals and PACs affiliated with lawyers and lobbyists, according to Open Secrets. 

Lee said she will rely on a network of small donors, much as Sanders and other progressives do. She engendered a lifetime of support from many progressives and anti-war activists for being the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing the United States to go to war in days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She received death threats and, she estimates, 60,000 pieces of hate mail and phone calls. Ultimately — years later — many Democrats came around to support her position.

She pointed to how Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, a Black woman who also served in the Legislature and Congress, won last November despite being outspent 11-to-1 by Rick Caruso, a wealthy white businessman. 

“I’m confident I can raise the money to win this race,” Lee said.

Central to her pitch to voters — and donors — will be the urgency of electing a woman of color to represent the nation’s most diverse state. She points out that while there have only been two women elected to the Senate, those two — one-termer Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Kamala Harris of California — served only a combined 10 years since the nation’s founding. (Harris’ term ended after four years when she became vice president in 2021.) If Schiff or another man wins the seat, California would be represented by two men after being represented by two women from 1992 to 2020. Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, the state’s first Latino senator, is California’s other senator.

“It’s outrageous that we don’t have any African American women in the Senate,” Lee said. “California is a progressive state, and we have to have the diversity that reflects the population.”

Yet Pelosi, who touts her lifelong advocacy for women and female candidates, endorsed Schiff, a heterosexual white man, this month. Lee, who has represented a neighboring House district to Pelosi for decades, shrugged off the pick. 

“Speaker Pelosi has a right to make her own decisions about who she endorses,” Lee said. “I think what’s important is that the voters will decide who can relate to their lives and who will fight for housing, who will fight for real public safety, who will fight to address the climate crisis, who’s had the experience to really get the job done.”

Reach Joe Garofoli: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @joegarofoli


The post U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee kicks off her Senate campaign first appeared on NABJ Black News & Views.