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Barbara Lee won for Black women, even if she lost Senate run

I'm not sure what I expected from Barbara Lee when the aide handed her the phone, but the laugh I heard definitely wasn't it.

The announcement came just hours after the longtime Oakland congressman made the announcement. Statement authorizing the primary election Speaking as a U.S. senator, he congratulated his Democratic colleague, Representative Adam B. Schiff of Burbank. gripped later That she didn't call him personally to say that.

Mr. Lee came in fourth place, more than 1 million votes behind Mr. Schiff and Republican Steve Garvey, and several hundred thousand votes behind the third-place finisher, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine. While votes are still being counted, the Senate race was called minutes after the Super Tuesday polls closed.

No matter how you look at it, it was a crushing defeat.

Especially since Lee and a dedicated sisterhood of politicians, activists, academics, and lobbyists across California have spent nearly four years behind the scenes working to increase the representation of Black women at the highest levels of the federal government. That's right.

Now, Mr. Schiff and Mr. Garvey will face off in the general election in November, and Mr. Schiff is certain to win in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. He will remain a senator for many years to come.

Then I wondered why Lee was smiling.

“I have been persistent, but there have been roadblocks and roadblocks in my path,” she told me, growing serious. “But again, this is an example of a Black woman's life.”


It's worth reflecting on how we got here. At least that's what California Secretary of State Shirley Weber has done.

“It all started with believing that African Americans deserve a seat at the table,” she told me.

That was back in 2020, when Weber served as leader of the state Legislature and the Legislative Black Caucus. Joe Biden had just been elected president with considerable support from black women, and Kamala Harris had just vacated her Senate seat to become the country's first black and South Asian vice president.

Weber and a long list of black politicians, activists, academics and lobbyists decided that black women needed to maintain representation in the Senate. As states and countries become more diverse each year, it is a loss to not have people with such intersecting life experiences.

“The nation’s ability to recognize and support Black women in statewide office is extremely tight,” Weber told me in 2020. “There are 100 people in the Senate and there are not a single black woman.”

The “Keep the Seat” campaign was born, and the words became a rallying cry. Advocates called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to do just that by choosing Lee or then-Rep. Karen Bass is both a long-time lawmaker and highly qualified to succeed Harris.

Lee stuck to his progressive stance and “save your seat” message in Santa Rosa last month while campaigning for the Senate in cities and counties across California.

(Josh Edelson/For the Times)

In the end, Newsom chose then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla instead, Lee remained in Congress, and Bass, of course, became mayor of Los Angeles. But the cries of unity were not silenced. Instead, the issue has come to the fore again, with calls for Sen. Dianne Feinstein to resign over concerns about her health, and Newsom's promise to appoint a Black woman to the seat if the situation arises.

Then Feinstein died last year, sparking days of political turmoil largely of the governor's own making. At issue were clear warnings about Mr. Newsom's promise. He said he was making an “interim appointment” as the campaign for the Senate seat has already been going on for several months.

Lee and other black women, myself included, were outraged and wondered why she could only serve as a caretaker for Schiff, who was still at the top. Mr. Newsom said his words had been misconstrued and resisted calls to appoint Mr. Lee permanently.

In the end, the governor appointed a political ally, LaFonza Butler, a black woman who led Emily's List, who ultimately decided not to run for a full term.

Given all of this, it was a surprise to Weber that Lee would continue campaigning for the Senate and relinquish his seat in the House of Representatives. This is especially true because even without Lee, the Senate is likely to have a new Black woman in November. Angela Alsobrooks of Maryland and Lisa Brant Rochester of Delaware is also running for the seat.

Looking at the polls, many people were secretly pressuring Lee to resign.

“But that's Barbara, you know? She's doing what she believes in, so you can never doubt her heart,” Weber told me. “Another person might have calculated, 'If I run and lose, it's this way or that way.'” And she didn't calculate that way. She decided that she needed to have a black woman in her seat. ”


I don't think Lee would admit it, but he probably knew he was going to lose.

Even after she won a majority of delegate votes at the California Democratic Convention, polls consistently showed her lagging behind her opponents for months. Many of these delegates tended to be more progressive than voters in other parts of the state, as well as voters in Bay Area districts.

Mr. Lee also lacked the statewide name recognition that Mr. Schiff, who rose to prominence by leading the first impeachment of Donald Trump, had. Or a porter writing notes on a whiteboard during a Congressional hearing. Or even Garvey, a star player for the Dodgers and Padres.

Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Lee did not have the tens of millions of dollars to gain statewide recognition with an onslaught of television advertising. Before deciding to run for her Senate seat, the 77-year-old never needed sophisticated fundraising efforts, rather than blasting it out on social media to boost her popularity. She was very protective of her private life.

“It's very difficult to introduce yourself to voters unless money comes from all directions,” she admitted.

That means Lee's campaign could only raise about $5 million, but according to reports. the latest Federal Election Commission filings; She was running against two of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress. Together, Schiff and Porter raised her nearly $30 million war chest. Benefiting from the democratic government, on a long leash.

That's why, of all the candidates, Porter, who has about the same amount of money in his campaign account as Lee raised through his campaign, was the one who chose to complain about the influence of money in politics. That's a ridiculous reason.

“It’s your fault,” she said. Posted to X's followers, “We scared away the establishment, withstood a 3-to-1 increase in TV spending and an onslaught of billionaires who spent millions of dollars rigging this election.” Of course, the election was “rigged.” ”, which was a terrible choice of words. The ballots were not illegally manipulated.

But it is true that our political system is “rigged,'' in the sense that social bias and structural inequalities often work against candidates who are women or people of color. This is supported by study after study, including some recent studies. From Pew Research Center.

There aren't that many elected white men because most white men are political geniuses and most women and people of color are terrible candidates. Women of color in particular consistently have a harder time raising money because they have less access to high-value donors, and therefore have a harder time getting elected.

“That's the reality when you're in a poor community and you're just a regular campaigner, working hard in your community and making a difference,” Webber said. “You're not part of the circle that collects $30 million.”

Adam Schiff gestures and speaks as Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Steve Garvey stand on stage and listen.

Mr. Lee (left) weighs in on systemic fundraising challenges and polling against his high-profile rivals, from left, Adam B. Schiff, Katie Porter, and Steve Garvey in the January debate. He remained in the election campaign despite problems such as low support.

(Damien Dovarganes/AP)

But Lee's decision to run despite these challenges was an inspiration to many people she met during her campaign, she said. That included a number of black women who had launched fledgling campaigns to run for her.

They discussed the difficulties ahead. Racism and sexism embedded in the system.

“So many people came up and whispered to me, 'I know what the deal is.' That's a conversation that black women often have,” Lee told me. “If you go out and do something that other people thought you shouldn't do as a Black woman, you're going to get a lot of backlash.”

I saw it too. Black women and people of color watched Lee's every word as she campaigned in cities and counties where she had no reason to spend much time before.

How, as a teenager, she mustered up the courage to travel to Mexico to get an abortion. How she worked with Black Panther. As a member of Congress, she was one of the first to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and the only person to resist war after 9/11.

Before running for the Senate, Mr. Lee was unknown to many. Now, she's an underrated hero with a cult following.

Therefore, I agree with Webber that Lee's loss in the primary does not weaken the fight for representation that began with the Save Our Seats movement. Or even the push to elect Harris to the Senate in the first place.

“No one said we shouldn't do this anymore. No one seemed to say, 'Well, we missed an opportunity.' We missed shots,” Weber said. “But a lot of the women I've talked to recently are saying, 'Look, when this is over, we need to organize.'”

Funding is always an issue. The same goes for racism and sexism. But in the end, the Senate campaign may have been more important than the election. Thus, Lee is the one who gets the last laugh.

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