Years before Barbara Lee became a California congresswoman, she was a single mother of two on public assistance determined to get an education.
While a commuter student at Mills College in Oakland in the 1970s, she met a famous American who would change the course of her life.
“I was president of our Black Student Union, and invited Shirley Chisholm to speak on campus,” Lee recalls. “We were surprised when she agreed.”
Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, delivered a passionate speech during her campus visit about public service and community change.
Lee was so inspired she registered to vote for the first time, and later worked on Chisholm’s historic presidential campaign.
“I served as her delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami,” says Lee. “She became my mentor and helped me launch my political career.”
Lee, elected in 1998 to represent the Golden State, now aims to make history.
Her goal is to become vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the influential body that works to craft Democratic policy and strategy.
If elected, Lee, 70, would be the first African-American woman to assume the role, following in the footsteps of Chisholm, who held the title of caucus secretary decades ago. Party officials confirm the election will be held Nov. 30.
Lee, who announced her intentions to run before Hillary Clinton and the Democrats suffered losses in the presidential election, believes the stakes are even higher now.
“I’m running for vice chair because we need leaders who will stand up to [President-elect Donald] Trump, defend our values and resist efforts to turn back the clock,” she says. “I want to empower members with resources, best shared practices, opportunities to lead and a strong voice at the leadership table as we work to take back the House.”
The vice chair is one of five top leadership positions in the caucus and involves an internal campaign among members.
While House Democratic members were slated to choose their leadership this month, there may be delays. Some members have reportedly circulated a letter urging Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to delay the process while the party regroups.
To date, there is one other person who is running—Rep. Linda Sanchez. So far, Lee has garnered public support for her candidacy from several colleagues.
“I’ve worked with Barbara for many years and she’s truly a member’s member,” says Rep. David Scott of Georgia. “Even when we have different policy positions, she respects those differences and has gone to the mat for me and others. As our vice chair, I know she’ll be a fighter for every member’s voice at the leadership table.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio is the co-chair of Lee’s team.
“Congresswoman Lee is a true voice for the voiceless, a legislator who reaches across the aisle, and an insightful policy strategist—all of which we need in our next vice chair now more than ever,” Fudge says. “She is well respected for tenaciousness on issues of importance, and takes her responsibilities as a voice for all Americans very seriously.”
Indeed, in 2001 Lee received national attention as the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization for using military force in the wake of 9/11. She was also an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War.
Lee, who holds a master’s in social work, has also been a strong advocate for social justice.
In 2007, she worked with a diverse coalition of members to create the Out of Poverty Caucus, and chaired a task force that works to craft legislation designed to lift American families out of poverty and into the middle class.
Lee has also been a fierce advocate for ending HIV/AIDS. Since entering Congress, she has authored or co-authored every major piece of HIV/AIDS legislation. That includes the legislative frameworks for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief [PEPFAR] and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
“I want to uplift people,” says Lee, a native of “segregated” El Paso, Texas, whose father was a veteran of two wars and whose mother “broke many racial barriers.”
After moving to San Fernando, Calif., while a pre-teen, she worked with the local NAACP chapter to integrate her high school cheerleading squad.
She brings such life lessons to Congress, be it while serving on the Appropriations Committee, which oversees all federal government spending, or holding key leadership roles with the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus. The latter has endorsed her; the CBC could not be reached for comment.
Some women’s advocates say they hope Lee will be successful in her quest, especially given that African-American women are a key constituent of the Democratic Party.
“Should Rep. Barbara Lee become the next vice chair of the House Democratic Conference for the 115th Congress, her leadership role would be the personification of the growing power of Black women’s voices and votes that were felt most recently during this past election,” says Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, which works to empower Black female candidates and voters.
She notes that the 115th Congress will include the largest number of Black women to ever serve in the body.
“Representative Lee’s mentor, the late Shirley Chisholm, would be proud. She once said, ‘I don’t measure America by its achievement but by its potential.’ Barbara Lee would highlight the potential that this country maintains,” Peeler-Allen says.