Rep. Barbara Lee kicks off Senate campaign to replace Feinstein

Rep. Barbara Lee, a longtime favorite of liberal Democrats, confirmed Tuesday that she will run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“For those who say my time has passed, well, when does making change go out of style? I don’t quit. I don’t give up. Come on. That’s not in my DNA,” Lee said in a three-minute campaign kick-off video posted online early Tuesday morning. “Because when you stand on the side of justice, you don’t quit. If they don’t give you a seat at the table, you bring a folding chair for everyone,” she said.

The announcement by the veteran Oakland politician, 76, was not surprising because she had told the Congressional Black Caucus last month that she planned to run for the seat, and filed paperwork creating a Senate fundraising committee last week.

Lee’s political activism dates back more than half a century. She worked on the 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman, and on Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale’s mayoral race in Oakland the following year.

After serving in the California Legislature, Lee was elected to Congress in 1998. She gained notoriety as the sole member of Congress to vote against giving President George W. Bush authorization to use military force after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More than two decades later, the concerns she expressed then are echoed by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Although unsuccessful in past efforts to join House Democratic leadership, Lee has led the congressional Black and progressive caucuses.

Lee will face challenges in what is expected to be a highly competitive race that already includes Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine, both of whom are among the top fundraisers in Congress. Lee has easily won reelection because of her district’s overwhelming Democratic tilt, and she never needed to focus on raising campaign cash in those efforts.

To boost her financial backing, prominent strategists last week launched a super PAC that can accept unlimited donations called “She Speaks for Me.”

“The idea is to help level the playing field for someone who hasn’t had to raise huge amounts in the past for her races locally and doesn’t have the war chest that her opponents have,” said Brian Brokaw, an advisor to the committee.

Brokaw and Dan Newman, another longtime Bay Area Democratic operative who is leading the outside effort, have extensive ties with donors focused on criminal justice reform who could be key to boosting Lee’s prospects, particularly against Schiff, a former federal prosecutor.

For example, Brokaw has worked on multiple campaigns with Patricia Quillin, the wife of billionaire Netflix leader Reed Hastings. Quillin, who shuns the spotlight, has spent millions to fight a proposition that would have reclassified some misdemeanors as felonies, to support a ballot measure that would have reinstated affirmative action in California, and to support the election of George Gascón as Los Angeles County district attorney in a race that was viewed as a referendum on law enforcement reform.

A question, one that few discuss openly, is Lee’s age and whether voters will replace Feinstein, an octogenarian, with a septuagenarian.

Lee attempted to stymie this argument by telling supporters she would serve only one term, a gambit reported by the San Francisco Chronicle that puzzled many, including her supporters. Her backers say that ageist arguments are insulting given the congresswoman’s decades of service and the number of seniors leading the nation, notably President Biden, 80.

In recent history, candidates from the San Francisco Bay Area have been much more successful than Southern Californians in being elected to California’s premiere statewide political posts, among them Vice President Kamala Harris — elected as state attorney general and then to the U.S. Senate — Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Gov. Jerry Brown, Feinstein and former Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The dominance is partly driven by the region’s concentration of liberal voters and high turnout even though it’s less populous than Southern California, said San Francisco Democratic consultant Eric Jaye. The state’s liberal voters will prioritize race and gender, and broadsides about Lee’s age would backfire, he said.

“We’re in an era where representation is frequently the most important criterion as we choose leaders,” Jaye said. “If you put together the votes from Northern California and African American votes statewide, and you add to that progressives who remember her vote on the Iraq war, she’s got a lane.”

Bessie Venters

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