Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee Might Join Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic Leadership

The Oakland representative, who turns 72 today, is mulling a bid to replace Rep. Joe Crowley, who famously lost to a 28-year-old outsider, as the caucus chair.

Rep. Barbara Lee (lee.house.gov)

Rep. Nancy Pelosi has served in Congress since 1987, and she’s led the Democratic caucus since 2002. In that 16-year period, she’s held the Speaker’s gavel for a mere four years — 2007 to 2011 — serving as Minority Leader before and ever since.

Progressives have occasionally had a difficult relationship with Pelosi, who sometimes seems to be more of an Establishment-protector than the far-left firebrand she’s often caricatured as. Recently, Pelosi chastised South Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters over Waters’ encouraging Americans to shame members of the Trump administration out of restaurants and other public places.

“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd,” Waters said in June. “And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

That sounds like an assertive call to resist normalizing governmental policies that throw children in cages, but of course many Republicans saw it as inciting riots, and Pelosi’s critiques lent credence to their performative horror. As with California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, there have been rumbles that Pelosi has held on too long and neglected to groom a successor. The antipathy toward Feinstein is a bit deeper; over the weekend, she failed to gain the state party’s endorsement over her challenger, Kevin de León, for the second time.

Most of the anti-Pelosi sentiment has come not from progressives, but from moderates. Around the country, dozens of Democratic challengers in purple districts have stated they won’t vote for her for speaker, should the Democrats regain the House. It’s something that Pelosi, aware that she’s a right-wing boogyman just as any liberal woman in power is, has brushed off in the past. If the Blue Wave becomes a Blue-nami, she can afford a handful of defections, but if Democrats gain only 30 seats to acquire a slim majority, she might have trouble nailing down the 218 votes required to become Speaker of the House.

Pelosi has two key attributes that shouldn’t be taken lightly when mulling over her tenure. For one, she’s a prodigious fundraiser, and two, she’s an adroit vote-whipper. She didn’t get much credit at the time, but the Affordable Care Act passed through her chamber 219-212 because she knew which skittish Blue Dog Democrats to cajole or give a pass to and which ones to press. She has a third attribute as well: a keen knowledge that if she departs, she will leave behind a vacuum and a white male nonentity will fill the void.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland is the 79-year-old empty suit likeliest to ascend in a post-Pelosi world. That you’ve probably never heard of him is no accident; he’s a blandly liberal ladder-climber who’s as inward-facing as Pelosi is well-known, and he’s the No. 2 Democrat in the House. No. 3 is Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who is Black, 77 years old, and also fairly low-profile.

The fourth-ranking Democrat is New York’s Rep. Joe Crowley, most famous for losing to 28-year-old newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a stunning upset last month. Because the Queens-and-Bronx district they contested is so heavily Democratic, Ocasio-Cortez is a virtual lock for the general election in November, which puts Crowley in the highly awkward position of serving as a lame duck for the next six months not only as a representative but as a member of the party leadership. 

Enter Rep. Barbara Lee, who’s birthday is Monday, July 16. The 72-year-old Oakland representative who has served since 1998 has decided to make a play for Crowley’s position of caucus chair, the function of which seems nebulous by design. If successful, Lee would be the first Black woman in the Democratic party leadership — and it also would mean that Crowley will be replaced by not one woman of color, but two.

Welcoming Lee, her longtime ally, into the fold would likely take some of the heat off Pelosi, who faces extraordinary pressure to elect more Democrats. Lee is well-known as the lone dissenting vote against the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that later became the pretext for perpetual war, and she’s been vocal about a better federal cannabis policy . and issues of racial equity in Oakland. Having volunteered with the Black Panthers in the 1960s, she succeeded Democratic Socialists of America founder Ron Dellums as Oakland’s congressional representative and later chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. This isn’t Lee’s first attempt to climb into the Party leadership; in 2016, she lost narrowly to Loretta Sanchez for vice caucus chair.

Sanchez, it should be noted, was no progressive. A Republican until 1996, she defeated “B-1 Bob” Dornan — one of the most noxious legislators the Orange County Republican Party ever produced — in a surprise, but campaigned against Kamala Harris in the 2016 Senate race only to lose in a 66-38 rout. This demonstrates how far moderates and Blue Dogs’ stars have fallen.

Lee is among the most progressive voices in the federal government, and it appears she’s succeeding in her effort this time. The Intercept reports that increasingly influential South Bay Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna has lent support to her quiet campaign, which implies that the full 78-member Progressive Caucus has her support as well. Right there, that’s more than one-third of the votes Lee needs. Khanna’s backing is doubly significant since, as a rising star in his own right, he faced some pushback for his dual endorsement of Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez.

The fact that much of this drama, which is national in its scope, is playing out among California’s Democratic delegation is further proof that the state is the engine of American progressivism and a vital bulwark against the forces of xenophobia and revanchism. From its leadership to its freshman class, the incoming crop of Democrats could very well resemble the country it serves — and a tag-team of San Francisco and Oakland be at the wheel.

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