The leafy, seminary-like grounds in Oakland look different from when she attended. To her frustration, even the school’s name has been changed to Northeastern University Oakland.
But for Lee, her time on campus is preserved in amber — the years of student activism, her first trip to Africa, and a political awakening.
It’s where she met Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and where she volunteered with the Black Panthers during the tumultuous late 1960s and early ’70s. Her work at the women’s college provided her first taste of Oakland politics, one that carried her to Congress and now animates her bid for the U.S. Senate against fellow Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, as well as Republican and former Dodger Steve Garvey.
“She is an organic leader who was a seed that came from the soil of the Oakland community, which has long cared deeply about doing right in society,” said retired Pastor Alfred J. Smith, 92, a famed local clergyman who led Allen Temple Baptist Church, which Lee has attended for decades.
Lee’s quarter-century serving in Congress has been defined by that desire to do right. At times it’s been a lonesome pursuit, but it’s one that she feels has, over the years, proved prescient.
Lee cast the sole vote in 2001 against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that gave then-President George W. Bush the power to wage war against the nations, people and organizations that aided the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that felled the World Trade Center towers.
Her support in 2003 for Medicare for all, to provide comprehensive healthcare to all Americans, was considered a relatively fringe position at the time but is now a common topic of debate in Democratic primaries.
More recently, Lee, 77, called for a cease-fire the day after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, as Israel’s military began responding with attacks on the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based. Her top Democratic opponents, Schiff and Porter, both declined to take that position initially. Porter later came to support a cease-fire, while Schiff remains opposed to one.
During her time in Congress, Lee has represented one of the most liberal districts in the state if not the country, which gives her the freedom to stick to her progressive ideals and take tough, sometimes unpopular stands. But that shield also has been isolating, since issues that might be popular in Oakland and Berkeley may not be as closely embraced in less politically progressive areas of the state.
Though much of the nation sees California as a far-left haven, its residents hold a wide range of political views, which may explain in part why Lee has been languishing in recent opinion surveys on the Senate race. The latest polling from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies last month indicated that Schiff was backed by 21% of likely voters, compared with 17% for Porter and 13% for Garvey. Lee was in fourth, with the support of 9% of likely voters.
Schiff and Porter also have far larger national profiles and more sophisticated fundraising operations than Lee, said Ludovic Blain, executive director of the progressive California Donor Table, which has endorsed Lee.
“She and those of us who support her haven’t been able to pull together the funds needed to educate voters about her, especially younger voters,” Blain said.
Just nine Black people have ever been elected to the Senate. Only two, Lee is quick to remind people, were women. Now more than ever, she said, the Senate needs her experience — which includes living through America’s civil rights movement and the entrenched discrimination that still lingers more than half a century later; the daily challenges of single motherhood; being surveilled by the FBI as a young activist in Oakland; and facing death threats and accusations of being a traitor for opposing the war in Afghanistan.
“I’m a Black woman in America; we always have to deal with stuff, because like Shirley Chisholm said, ‘These rules weren’t made for me,’” Lee said.
The only 2024 statewide electoral contest is for Senate and includes Reps. Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam B. Schiff along with former Dodger Steve Garvey.
Lee’s assertiveness has made Democratic leaders uncomfortable at times, including last fall when she criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom for saying he’d appoint a Black woman to the seat to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein — but not any of the candidates already running in the 2024 Senate election, since that would provide an advantage. That took Lee out of consideration for an appointment.
“By advocating for herself, she never had a chance. The minute she spoke up she [disqualified] herself,” said Democratic consultant Doug Herman, who helped elect Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass in 2022.
For Blain and other Lee allies, the goal was not to get a Black woman into that seat just to serve until the end of 2024 — but to have one win and serve an entire term.
“She did a great job of pushing, because the knots that Gavin tied himself up in needed to be exposed. He needed to be held accountable,” Blain said of Lee’s criticism of the governor.
Lee’s political idealism and moral clarity rose from a life beset by heartache, personal injustice and misfortune.
Born in El Paso, Lee recalls often how her mother, Mildred, nearly died during childbirth. When Lee was a teenager, her family moved to the San Fernando Valley, where she became the first Black cheerleader at her high school after her mother urged her to enlist the support of the local chapter of the NAACP, the civil rights group.
Lee later became pregnant, and since abortion was then illegal in California — as it is now in many conservative states — her mother sent her back to Texas to cross the border with $200 to obtain an abortion in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
When she was just out of high school, she married an Air Force serviceman and moved to England, where they lived for two years before divorcing. She landed in the Bay Area with their two sons and began dating a man who abused her, she recounted in her autobiography, “Renegade for Peace and Justice: Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks for Me.”
In the aftermath of this trauma, she floated in and out of homelessness — staying in cheap hotels to keep her young boys off the streets.
It was around this time when Lee arrived on Mills College’s campus and became enmeshed in the activist culture of the Black Panthers. By 1971 the organization had become famous — and heavily criticized — for its founders’ view that Black Americans needed to arm and protect themselves from law enforcement agencies targeting Black communities.
In the late 1960s, violent confrontations between the Black Panthers and police across the nation left organization leaders dead. The Black Panther Party’s armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods to protect residents from police brutality, and their armed protest at the state Capitol, led to a 1967 California law that made it illegal to carry a loaded firearm in public without a permit — a law signed by the Republican governor, Ronald Reagan.
Images of armed Black Panther Party members in leather jackets and berets outside the Capitol swept the nation and brought the group more fame, funding and notoriety.
Lee never formally joined the party but served as a community worker at a time when the group was pulling back from its more global revolutionary goals and focusing on volunteer work and building local political power in the East Bay Area.
“It was mainly community service, and political awareness,” Lee said.
Previously, Lee had been an underclassman at Mills who brought her two sons to statistics class and led the Black Student Union. She had never registered with a political party, much less voted. Her focus — very much at the behest of her parents — was good grades and stability. She bought her first home near campus for about $19,000 through a federal program while she was still a student.
When she took a class that required students to volunteer on a 1972 presidential campaign, none of the candidates appealed to her.
“I said, ‘Flunk me, I’m not working in any of these guys’ campaigns,’” she recalled.
That winter, faced with the prospect of failing the class, she invited then-Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat, to speak on campus to the Black Student Union. Chisholm, described by the Oakland Tribune as “the dynamic little woman with the big voice,” spoke about the need for big countries to limit arms sales, stopping aid to countries that repress their citizens, and reducing discrimination in housing.
All of these subjects would become signature policy issues for Lee.
“America is at a crossroads today and it is going to take a combination of men, women, young people, Blacks, Chicanos and Indians — everything put together, not in a melting pot but in a salad bowl — to straighten it out,” Chisholm told the crowd.
After Chisholm announced her plans to run for president, Lee walked up to her and volunteered for her campaign. Eventually she rose to become the campaign’s organizing director in Northern California and one of the 28 delegates representing Chisholm at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach.
“Barbara had never even registered to vote before. But in the end they were to be responsible for a 9.6 percent vote for me in Alameda County,” Chisholm wrote in her memoir of Lee and another Mills College student, Sandra Gaines.
Lee and Gaines, Chisholm wrote, “could operate without having the aura of power and authority that an outside leader would have relied on.”
The 20-something Lee had begun to straddle the worlds of activism and more mainstream political work. The Chisholm campaign taught her how to organize and to be a sophisticated fundraiser — training that would stay with her. But the experience also alienated her from some of the Black Panthers activists she worked with, Lee recounted in her book.
“There were Black Panthers who accused me of being an FBI agent or simply part of ‘The System,’” she wrote.
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She’d arrived in the Bay Area in the late 1960s as a single mom to two children and had survived a violent and abusive relationship. By the middle of the next decade, her activism and organizing work would help her overcome the pain she’d experienced and give her a sense of purpose from which to build.
Lee said the Panthers and her time at Mills College served as a bridge from a young adulthood marked by insecurity and grief, and molded the political worldview that would carry her into elected office.
“Being a part of the Black Panther movement toughened me up,” she wrote.
“It made me realize that racism, sexism, economic exploitation, poverty ... are a by-product or result of a system of capitalism that relies on cheap labor and keeping people fighting each other rather than uniting and working together for the common good.”
This foray into politics launched a career in which she was able to maneuver inside the system as well. After Chisholm lost, Lee worked as fundraising coordinator for the 1973 Oakland mayoral campaign of Black Panther founder Bobby Seale, who took the Republican incumbent to a runoff but lost.
As Lee fell more fully into political work, she obtained a master’s degree in social work from UC Berkeley in 1975 and helped start Community Health Alliance for Neighborhood Growth and Education, or CHANGE Inc., a nonprofit that offered mental services to East Bay residents.
Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther Party chair, said Lee was driven to help people, whether inside the political system or outside it.
“You have a Joe Biden today, who would pretend that he is doing something, but he’s not. Barbara was true to her word,” Brown said. “She wanted to be elected so she could vote for things that would serve our interests. It wasn’t very complicated. It was very deep and very sincere.”
During a recent drive to St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in west Oakland, Lee passed by large homeless encampments and boarded-up storefronts. The Black Panthers had served free breakfast for kids at the church — an experience that impressed upon her how government didn’t sufficiently care for the country’s neediest while focusing on military interventions abroad.
“It was always on my mind that what I saw then and now is because of systemic policies and institutional racism,” Lee said. “Back then I really felt I wasn’t just putting a Band-Aid on something.”
It was through political education classes, she said, that she’d come to understand “the circumstances that gave rise to this” system, but that “in the meantime, we had to help people survive.”
Lee eventually became chief of staff for Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland), a progressive icon whom she would succeed in Congress. In the mid-1990s, after she had returned to Oakland to run a facilities management company, it was Dellums’ political network that lured her back to politics, urging — really cajoling — her to run for an open state Assembly seat.
“She pays attention to what people’s needs are and hears them. She’s intellectually brilliant at composing solutions for problems both at an individual and social scale,” said Lee Halterman, who spent 27 years working for Dellums and advised some of Lee’s early campaigns.
“We wanted to continue the coalition idea,” Halterman said, “that in districts that can send people of color to Congress, that should be a priority.”
In 1998, after Dellums resigned midway through his term, Lee won a special election for his House seat.
Sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from St. Augustine’s Church, Lee doused a slice of avocado toast in hot sauce and sipped a honey oat lavender latte. Three constituents of Ethiopian descent came up to thank her for her office’s help dealing with some paperwork problems on a citizenship application.
There’s been less time in recent years for Lee to visit these moments from her past and connect with this history. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that she spent less time at in-person events. The Senate campaign has meant she’s traversing the state more when she’s not in Washington for votes.
She recalled a piece of advice from Dellums: “He would always say this to me: ‘Stand on the corner — by yourself. Just stand there. Sooner or later, everybody is going to walk to you if you’re on the right side of the issue.’”