Lee, Barbara 1946–
Barbara Lee 1946–
“I want to continue fighting the good fight, which Ron has been so valiantly fighting for the last 30 years,” said Barbara Lee when announcing her candidacy for the United States House of Representatives. The year was 1997, and “Ron” was Ron Dellums, a veteran Congressional representative from the Oakland, California area who epitomized a liberal California outlook on issues ranging from U.S. military intervention abroad to domestic antipoverty efforts. After a long political career with Dellums as her mentor, Lee assumed the mantle of his leadership when she won a special election to succeed him, and immediately created a stir by taking the same sorts of maverick stands on the issues that Dellums himself had been known for.
Barbara Lee was born July 16, 1946, in El Paso, Texas, a city with only a small African American population. Her father, a Korean War veteran, would later support her in her antiwar positions. In 1960, the family moved to the burgeoning San Fernando Valley in suburban Los Angeles, where Lee attended San Fernando High School. She immersed herself in music, and won two music achievement awards from the Rotary Club and the Bank of America. In 1967 Lee moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, which was the epicenter of the student activist movement that was transforming American values and behaviors.
Lee attended Mills College, a private school in Oakland that had long been known for inculcating questioning attitudes in its students. Graduating with a B.A. degree in 1973, she worked as a Congressional intern the following year under a program called Cal in the Capital, and landed in the office of Congressman Ron Dellums. Lee’s experience with Dellums would shape her career: in an era when the attempt to combine politics and activism was much more commonly made, Lee had taken as a mentor the man who may have taken the combination farther than any other politician.
Emerging from the progressive and experiment-minded culture of Oakland and nearby Berkeley during the 1960s and 1970s, Congressman Dellums weathered successive national swings to the political left and right, eventually amassing considerable power by virtue of seniority. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee until the 1994 Republican takeover of the
At a Glance…
Career: United States Representative from California’s Ninth District. Established community mental health center in Berkeley, mid-1970s; joined staff of Representative Ron Dellums, 1975; became chief of staff; member, California Assembly, 1990–96; member California State Senate, 1996–98; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, February, 1998, after Deilums endorsed her upon own retirement; re-elected November 1998; sole member of Congress to vote against authorizing Yugoslavia bombing, 1999; member, Banking & Financial Services and International Relations committees.
Addresses: Office —414 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC20515.
House, he was a thorn in the side of Defense Department budget-makers, often questioning the need for new offensive weapons systems and urging the diversion of funds instead to domestic concerns. Dellums’s ongoing effort to convert aging Bay Area military bases to new, job-generating nonmilitary uses made an impression upon Lee when she joined his staff on a permanent basis.
Lee worked toward a graduate degree in social welfare at the University of California in Berkeley, using her limited spare time to create and nurture a community mental health center there. In 1975, she joined Dellums’s staff, working for Dellums in both his Washington and Oakland offices for eleven years. Lee was also a small business owner in Oakland during this time, and raised her sons there. Eventually, she rose to the position of Senior Adviser and Chief of Staff.
Groomed for several years to be Dellums’s successor when he finally decided to retire, Lee ran for and won election to the California Assembly in 1990, moving up to the California state senate in the elections of 1996. Despite her strongly liberal orientation, she worked successfully with California’s Republican administration in those years, sponsoring 67 bills that were signed into law by Republican Governor Pete Wilson. Lee focused on issues such as education, public safety, environmental protection, health, labor, and women’s rights, and worked to promote links between California and African countries.
Deilums endorsed Lee in the special election that followed his retirement in February of 1998, and she went on to win the April election without a runoff, taking 67 percent of the vote. By a similar margin, she won election to a full term that November. Although Dellums’s endorsement clearly played a crucial role, Lee tried to portray herself as something other than merely a Deilums clone. “Ron is not an anomaly in Oakland or San Francisco,” she pointed out to The Progressive. “He comes out of a progressive tradition.” The freethinking atmosphere of the Bay Area had in fact shaped Lee’s thinking before she ever met Deilums, and other area figures continued to influence her.
Traveled to Cuba and Grenada
Two of these figures were Carlton Goodlet, an African American doctor from San Francisco, and Maudelle Shirek, Berkeley’s vice mayor. Goodlet and Shirek steered Lee toward a pacifist and internationalist outlook after her election, encouraging her to travel to such officially disapproved states as Cuba (whose isolation through U.S. trade sanctions Lee deplored) and Grenada in the name of international understanding. The founder of a nonviolent conflict-resolution program in California schools, Lee sought to apply the lessons she had learned to international affairs. “Kids can’t see us bombing, and then listen to use talking about getting guns out of the schools,” she observed to The Progressive. “How can we tell them to solve problems without violence, if, in fact, we can’t show an ability to solve problems without violence?”
Those positions were put to the test in some of the crucial House votes during Lee’s first term. In December of 1998, Lee was one of five representatives in Congress to vote against authorization of President Clinton’s renewed bombing of Iraq in the dispute that arose over United Nations weapons inspections. In March of 1999, as the U.S. and Europe became embroiled in the conflict in Kosovo, Lee took an even lonelier stand: she cast the sole vote against authorizing the bombing of Yugoslavia. “I was surprised,” Lee admitted to The Progressive. “Being the only’no’ note is troubling. It’s staggering. You wonder if there’s something you’ve missed.” Lee was heartened, however, by the support voiced privately by several of her colleagues, and vowed to continue her advocacy of peaceful solutions. “We have a chance to do something in the world,” she said in the same interview. “But instead it’s just bomb, bomb, bomb.” The ideal of peace, it seemed, had found a spokesperson for the 21st century in Barbara Lee.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, Almanac of American Politics 2000, National Journal, 1999.
The Progressive, May 1999, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1998, p. 1.
Oakland Tribune, April 5, 1998.
San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 1997; April 4, 1998, p. A22.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.house.gov\lee\
—James M. Manheim
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