lee in the limelight

Barbara Lee joins growing Democratic field to claim Feinstein’s Senate seat

The House progressive is joining a field that includes Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff in what will be a closely watched Senate race in California

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) conducts a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, January 26, 2023.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a veteran progressive Democrat from the Bay Area, announced on Tuesday that she will run for the seat long held by outgoing Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), ending weeks of speculation about her plans for higher office.

“I’m running for U.S. Senate because Californians deserve a strong, progressive leader who has accomplished real things and delivered real change,” Lee, 76, said in a statement. “That’s what I’ve done my entire career in public service, and it’s what I’ll do in the Senate.”

The 12-term congresswoman, whose announcement had been widely expected, joins two other members of California’s Democratic House delegation, Reps. Katie Porter of Orange County and Adam Schiff of Los Angeles, both of whom launched their campaigns last month.

The field could grow in the coming months as other potential candidates weigh bids of their own, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a Silicon Valley Democrat who has said he intends to make a decision by early April. Feinstein, 89, revealed last week that she will step down at the end of her fifth term in 2024.

Lee, who reportedly timed her announcement to overlap with Black History Month, is the first Black woman to join the primary, which is already shaping up to be among the most costly and competitive Senate races of the upcoming election cycle. There are currently no Black women in the U.S. Senate.

“No one is rolling out the welcome mat, especially for someone like me,” Lee said in a campaign launch video, where she described her experience growing up in segregated El Paso, Texas, among other hardships. “I was the girl they didn’t allow in.”

Lee became the first Black cheerleader at San Fernando High School in Los Angeles, “escaped a violent marriage” and “became a single mom” who “couldn’t afford childcare and brought her kids to class,” she recounted in the video. “To do nothing,” she added, “has never been an option for me.”

In the video, Lee also touted her legislative efforts to combat domestic abuse, reduce LGBTQ hate crimes and prioritize global AIDS funding, while underscoring her lone House vote against authorizing the invasion of Afghanistan more than two decades ago, a stand that has since made her an icon of the anti-war movement.

“I didn’t quit when I refused to give the president completely unlimited war powers after September 11, and in the face of countless death threats, I was the only ‘no’ vote,” Lee declared. “I didn’t quit then, and I won’t quit now.”

As a longstanding critic of American foreign policy, Lee, a former state lawmaker who represents an Oakland-based House district, has at times found herself at odds with the pro-Israel establishment in Washington, D.C.

While in Congress, where she has served since 1998, Lee has signed on to legislation that would place restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel and was among a small group of House members who voted against a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

During the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Lee called for both sides “to act to urgently de-escalate,” while crediting “a heavy-handed Israeli police response” in Jerusalem with contributing to the flare-up of violence.

“Unjust attempts to forcibly displace Palestinian families from their homes undermines Israeli security, Palestinian dignity and prospects for peace,” she said in a statement at the time. “Violent protests and a heavy-handed Israeli police response escalated the situation. Hamas rocket attacks and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes have caused the deaths of too many innocent civilians. This must stop.”

Even as Lee has occasionally strayed from the pro-Israel consensus, some Jewish community members in her district confessed that they have nevertheless maintained a close and cordial relationship with the congresswoman over the years.

“She’s always very open to meeting with our community and open to listening to our positions,” Moses Libitzky, a pro-Israel activist who has met with Lee to discuss Middle East policy, said in an interview with Jewish Insider last month. “The problem is she doesn’t always agree with our positions.”

Still, Libitzky emphasized that Lee has remained committed to some core mainstream positions, such as continued U.S. aid to Israel and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other things. “She’s been very consistent in her positions over the years,” he said.

With more than a year remaining until the primary, it remains to be seen if pro-Israel groups will weigh in on the race. The current contenders have all previously been endorsed by the liberal advocacy group J Street, while Schiff, 62, and Porter, 49, have also gained backing from Democratic Majority for Israel in previous House contests.

Porter, a leading House progressive who has largely maintained positive relationships with the national pro-Israel community, is now visiting Israel on a congressional delegation led by J Street, the group’s vice president of communications, Logan Bayroff, confirmed in a text message to JI on Tuesday. The trip, which began on Sunday, will continue through Thursday and is J Street’s “largest ever delegation” with 15 House members, Bayroff said.

Last February, Lee and Schiff were among a select group of Democratic House members who accompanied former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on a national security delegation to Israel, where they met with a range of high-ranking government leaders.

Earlier this month, Schiff notched a key endorsement from Pelosi, one of several House members to have lined up behind his campaign. The congressman, a moderate Jewish Democrat now emphasizing more progressive credentials in his bid for statewide office, has long been viewed as a staunch supporter of Israel, even as he has recently expressed reservations over the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government. 

Porter, who was first to jump into the race in January, has gained backing from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), her former professor at Harvard Law School, in addition to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supported Mandela Barnes’ unsuccessful Senate campaign in Wisconsin last cycle.

Lee, for her part, rolled out a series of endorsements on Tuesday from the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) and Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota, among others.

Terri Bimes, a professor in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, speculated to JI that Lee is well-poised to win potential backing from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a longstanding progressive partner in the upper chamber.

His endorsement, Bimes suggested, could help secure Lee’s position as a progressive favorite in the hotly contested open primary, where the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election.

Elizabeth Bergman, an associate professor of political science at California State University, East Bay, said Lee could also receive “strong union backing,” as she has in previous races.

For now, however, Lee enters the race at a financial disadvantage, with only $52,323 on hand as of last December, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. Porter, by contrast, had $7.4 million in the bank, while Schiff, who is historically the most prolific fundraiser in the race, was sitting on just under $20.9 million. 

A new super PAC supporting Lee, She Speaks for Me, registered with the FEC last week — and could help close the fundraising gap.

Still, the congresswoman, who begins her campaign with a lower national profile compared with Schiff and Porter, “faces more of an uphill battle” than her opponents, Bergman said. “Of all the candidates who have been floated so far, she has the stiffest climb.”

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