Barbara Lee participated in her first Democratic National Convention in 1972, as a delegate supporting Shirley Chisholm’s groundbreaking bid for the presidency. Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, mounted a militant anti-war campaign that stressed the need for economic, social, and racial justice. With limited resources and in the face of skeptical media, she said her bid was all about “sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” Chisholm told Lee, “These rules, these laws inside were not made for you, they weren’t made for me. So you’ve got to get in there and shake things up.’”
Lee has done just that, as a state legislator, US representative, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the current cochair of the House Steering and Policy Committee. She served as a US representative to the 68th and 70th General Assemblies of the United Nations. She has drafted Democratic Party platforms in the past—and will do so again this year.
Few members of Congress are so well experienced in both foreign and domestic policy. Fewer members still have been so right so many times on matters of consequence: from LGBTQ rights to abortion rights to climate justice to her early embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement to her courageous 2001 vote to oppose the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that George Bush and ensuing presidents have employed as an excuse to wage forever wars.
By any honest measure, Barbara Lee belongs on former vice president Joe Biden’s short list of vice presidential prospects. Lee would make the Democratic ticket stronger by exciting the party’s base while expanding its reach. Whether party leaders choose to admit it or not, adding a progressive with Lee’s record to the ticket would be the best way for the presumptive nominee to signal that he is prepared to abandon the managerial politics of the past and embrace the visionary politics of the future.
There are plenty of folks—Biden champions and Biden critics—who will tell you that this is too much to ask of the former vice president. They will claim that this candidate and this party cannot possibly be expected to propose a transformational politics, let alone the transformational governance that might extend from it. The most powerful tendencies within the Democratic Party are still inclined toward caution and compromise, and Biden has always been their candidate. But Biden is moving, at least a bit, toward a bigger politics, as his approach to the vice presidential selection process indicates. The challenge now is to move him toward the even bigger politics that the moment demands.
The former vice president promised in March that he would pick a woman and, as CNN notes, there is now “an emerging consensus is that Biden should select a woman of color.” The case for picking a Black woman is strong, as a number of African American women noted in a May opinion piece that appeared in The Washington Post. “Though we have propped up the Democratic Party for decades, the return on our investment in the party might as well read, ‘insufficient funds,’” the women wrote. “Those days are over. We are here to collect. Very simply, Vice President Biden: You owe us, you need us and you must not take our votes for granted—they must be earned.”
Biden’s list is said to include California Senator Kamala Harris, Florida Representative Val Demings, and former national security adviser Susan Rice as top contenders with, perhaps, a few others such as 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in the running.
“This moment forces the Democrats to take a Black woman seriously,” says Nina Turner, a former national cochair for the Bernie Sanders campaign. “This moment makes it very clear that a Black woman or another woman of color should be elevated.”
Turner, whose own name has been mentioned as a VP prospect, thinks Lee belongs on the list. The former Ohio legislator says of the congresswoman from California: “She has been steadfast…in her grievances against the military-industrial complex—has not flinched on that issue, at all.”
The steadfast nature of Lee’s commitment to peace and justice is what distinguishes her in the eyes of those who are keeping a serious eye on the vice-presidential selection process. Sarita McCoy Gregory, the chair of the political science and history department at Hampton University, mentions Lee’s name as part of her argument that Biden needs to consider prospects that are “a bit more aspirational and [that reflect] my hope that the Biden team is paying attention to the current demands for nationwide police reform and the need to excite and unify the Democratic Party base.” Gregory asks whether former “top cops,” such as Harris and Demings, “will rally the energy and enthusiasm needed.” But she notes that Barbara Lee “has solid progressive politics that would excite the Sanders wing and the West Coast.”
Lee would, indeed, excite the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. Her positions parallel those of the senator from Vermont and his supporters on issues ranging from the need for a single-payer health care system to her advocacy for a Green New Deal and her determination to forge a new foreign policy. She has been a movement-aligned member of Congress for more than two decades, and now those movements are a powerful force in our politics. “If Biden wants to show he’s listening to these voters,” says Washington Post digital opinion editor James Downie,
there’s one name that apparently isn’t on his current vice-presidential shortlist, but should be: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).…
Adding Lee to the vice-presidential shortlist would signal that Biden is committed to breaking out of wrongheaded policy consensuses. It could fire up progressive voters who have been lukewarm about the former vice president, and whose turnout will be crucial in the fall. And it would show that he is willing to admit to and learn from past mistakes—a trait as deeply lacking in our leaders as it is sorely needed.
While Biden backed the Iraq War, Lee opposed it from the start. While Biden is not on board with “Medicare for All,” Lee is all in. While Biden’s record on criminal justice reform has been, to put it politely, troublesome, Lee has been working on these issues for decades.
These differences should not disqualify Lee from consideration. They should move her to the top of the list at a time when Biden and the Democrats desperately need to get in touch with the zeitgeist. And with the future.
Lee and I have spoken often about the campaign that Shirley Chisholm mounted all those years ago. The Californian delights in the fact that Chisholm, who was not treated with the seriousness her candidacy merited in 1972, is now featured on postage stamps and in popular films. Chisholm’s name has become so synonymous with principled politics that even centrist Democrats invoke it on the campaign trail and in convention speeches.
It has been said that Chisholm was ahead of her time. The truth is that the Democrats of the 1970s were behind the times. It took them decades to catch up.
It has also been said that Lee is ahead of her time, especially on matters of war and peace. Instead of waiting to praise her in the future, this would be a very good time for Joe Biden and the Democrats to catch up.