California won’t send a black woman to the Senate. But Barbara Lee won anyway

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

California won’t send a black woman to the Senate. But Barbara Lee won anyway

California Politics, Homepage News, Elections 2024

Erika D. Smith

March 10, 2024

I don’t know what I expected from Barbara Lee when an assistant handed her the phone, but the laughter I heard certainly wasn’t that.

Only a few hours had passed since the former congresswoman from Oakland released a statement endorsing the U.S. Senate primary and congratulating her Democratic colleague, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, even as he later complained that she hadn’t called him personally to say so.

Lee came in fourth place, over a million votes behind Schiff and Republican Steve Garvey, and hundreds of thousands of votes behind Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, who finished third. Ballots are still being counted, but the Senate race was postponed just minutes after the polls closed on Super Tuesday.

Regardless, it was a crushing defeat.



Lee, and a dedicated sisterhood of politicians, activists, academics and lobbyists across California,


has worked behind the scenes for nearly four years to boost Black women’s representation at the highest levels of the federal government.

Now Schiff and Garvey will face off in the November general election, and Schiff will surely win in this predominantly Democratic state. I will be a senator for years to come.

So I wondered: why was Lee laughing?

‘I have been persistent




every step of the way


“There have been roadblocks and obstacles,” she told me, turning serious


“But again, this is such an example of a black woman’s life.”


It’s worth thinking about how we got here. At least


The California Secretary of State said this

Shirley Shirely

Weber has done.

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

It was in 2020 and Weber was serving in the state Assembly and as leader of the Legislative Black Caucus. Joe Biden had just been elected president, with no little help from Black women, and Kamala Harris had just left her seat in the Senate 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 should remain represented in the Senate. That it would be a loss not to have someone with such intersectional life experiences, when the state and the country are becoming more diverse every year.

The ability across the country to recognize and support Black women in statewide positions is very dismal, Weber told me in 2020. You have 100 people in the Senate and you don’t have one Black woman.



“To hold


Seat campaign was born



the words

became a rallying cry. Supporters urged the governor. Gavin Newsom to do just that by electing Lee or then-Rep. Karen Bass, both

eminently at hand

qualified longtime lawmakers, succeeding Harris.

Newsom then finally chose

Instead, Secretary of State Alex Padilla Lee remained in Congress and Bass, of course, became mayor of Los Angeles. But the battle cry did not remain silent. Instead, it returned alongside calls for Sen. Dianne Feinstein to resign over concerns about her health, prompting Newsom to promise to appoint a Black woman to her seat if push came to shove.

Then Feinstein died last year, setting off a days-long political mess largely of the governor’s own making. was in dispute


apparent reservations about Newsom’s promise. He said he would make an interim appointment because the campaign for the Senate seat had been going on for months.

Lee and other black women, including myself, took offense and questioned why they were only good enough to be caretakers for Schiff, who was already in the lead at the time. Newsom said his words were


incorrectly constructed


and resisted calls to appoint Lee outright.

Ultimately, the governor appointed his political ally Laphonza Butler, the black woman who led Emily’s List, and she ultimately decided not to run.

for a full term


Considering all that back


It then came as a surprise to Weber that Lee would continue her campaign for the Senate and give up her seat in the House of Representatives. This is especially true because even without Lee, the Senate will likely have another Black woman in November, as Angela Alsobrooks of Maryland and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware are also running for seats.

Many people, looking at the polls, had quietly pressured Lee to resign.

“But that’s Barbara, you know? She does what she believes in


and you can never doubt her heart,’


told me. “Another would have calculated, ‘Well, if I run and lose, it’s this versus that.’ And then she didn’t calculate like that. She decided that there should be a black woman in that seat.”


I doubt Lee will ever admit it, but she had to know she would probably lose.

For months, polls showed her consistently trailing her opponents, even after receiving a majority of delegate votes at the California Democratic Party convention. Many of those delegates, like voters in her Bay Area district, tended to lean more progressive than voters in other parts of the state.

Lee also had no statewide profile, unlike Schiff, whose fame rose by leading the first impeachment of Donald Trump.


or Porter with her whiteboard notes during


unaggressive hearings


or even Garvey,

with his stints

with his star he turns against the Dodgers and Padres


Perhaps even more importantly,


Lee didn’t have tens of millions of dollars to buy a statewide profile with a TV advertising blitz.


The 77-year-old decided to run for Senate and never needed a sophisticated fundraising operation


and had fiercely guarded her private life, rather than spreading it on social media to boost her popularity.

“If there’s no money coming from all directions,” she acknowledged, “it’s very difficult to introduce yourself to voters.”

So even though Lee’s campaign raised only about $5 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, she was up against two of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress. Both Schiff and Porter amassed war chests of nearly $30 million, with Schiff, blessed by the Democratic Party establishment, long leading the way.

That’s why it’s ridiculous


from everyone


For the candidates, it was Porter with about as much money left in her campaign account as Lee


who grew up throughout her campaign and who chose to complain about the influence of money in politics.

“Thanks to you,” she posted to her followers It was a terrible choice of words, because the election was obviously not “rigged.” No ballots were illegally tampered with.

But it is true that our political system is rigged in the sense that societal biases and structural inequality often work against women and people of color running for office. This has been shown in study after study, including a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.

We don’t have an inordinate number of white men in elected office because most white men are political geniuses and most women and people of color are terrible candidates. We do this because women of color in particular are finding it increasingly difficult to raise money because they have less access to high-quality donors






have a harder time getting elected.

“That’s the reality of living in a poor community


and you’ve just been a steady campaigner and you work hard in your community and you deliver results,” Weber said.” You’re not in a circle raising $30 million.

But Lee’s decision to run for office despite these challenges, she said, inspired many of the people she met on the campaign trail, including countless Black women who were building young campaigns to run for office.

They exchanged stories of the hardships to come. The racism and sexism embedded in the system.

“So many of them came up to me and whispered to me, ‘I know what the deal is.’ “It’s a common conversation that black women have,” Lee told me. “If you come out as a black woman and do something that others thought you shouldn’t do, you’re going to get a lot of backlash.”

I saw it too. At her campaign events in cities and counties where she’d never had a reason to spend much time before, black women and people of color were on Lee’s every word:

How, as a teenager, she gathered the courage to travel to Mexico to have an abortion. How she worked with the Black Panthers. How, as a member of Congress, she was one of the first to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and the only one to oppose the war after September 11.

Before Lee ran for Senate, he was unknown to many. Now she’s an under

Esteemed hero with a cult-like following.

That’s why I agree with Weber when she says Lee’s loss in the primaries does not detract from the battle for representation that began with the Keep


he Seat campaign. Or even the attempt to get Harris elected to the Senate in the first place.

“No one is saying we shouldn’t do this again. No one seems to be saying, ‘Well, we lost our chance. We missed our chance,'” Weber said. “But a lot of women I’ve talked to lately have said, ‘You know, when this is over, we need to get organized.'”

Raising money will always be a problem. This is what racism and sexism mean. But in the end, the Senate campaign might have been more important than the election. And in that way, it’s Lee who has the last laugh.


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