‘We’ve worked for it:’ Barbara Lee on the future of Black women in leadership

‘We’ve worked for it:’ Barbara Lee on the future of Black women in leadership

RELATED: Kamala Harris, America’s first female vice president-elect, makes history


Originally published by The 19th

California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee is among the names being considered to replace Sen. Kamala Harris as she heads to the White House to serve as the first woman vice president of the United States.

Lee, currently in her 12th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, is the highest-ranking Black woman in Congress as co-chair of the steering and policy committee — a position she was appointed to by Speaker Nancy Pelosi after narrowly losing her bid for Democratuc Caucus Chair. Lee got her start in politics as a college student who volunteered to work on Shirley Chisholm’s pioneering campaign for president in 1972.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will fill Harris’ vacancy. The 19th’s editor-at-large, Errin Haines, spoke to Lee on Saturday about her future and what’s next for Black women in political leadership after a year that saw record turnout, organizing and candidacies for public office for the vanguard constituency of the Democratic Party.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You are somebody who is certainly in the conversation right now, so I want to talk to you about that and the future of Black women’s political power now, and people coming around to the reality that they should be following Black women’s leadership.

I got involved in politics through the presidential campaign of the first African American woman … We have thought, we’ve dreamed about this moment, but we’ve also worked for it.

I know this is a year in which we’ve seen the importance of representation in our politics. Kamala Harris launched her own campaign last year in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm. Talk a little bit about the importance of more women — and Black women, in particular — running for elected office, something I know Chisholm talked about. What do you think about where we are in this moment and where we should be going from here? 

I was there when [Harris] kicked off her campaign, and I was so honored to co-chair her California presidential campaign. So for me personally, this is just a remarkable moment. And what it says, I think, is, finally! Black women have been smart, we’ve been strategic, we’ve helped elect so many candidates to public office, and we’ve always brought other Black women and other women of color with us. And so this is such a historic occasion for Black women and women of color. But it also says that more women will be able to break through and it will be a heck of a lot easier [to do so].

Sticking with the theme of representation matters: Kamala Harris breaking that barrier in California, to become the state’s first Black senator, first Black woman senator, and now she’s the only Black woman currently serving in the U.S. Senate. What has that representation meant? 

With Sen. Harris in the Senate — I’ve worked with her on a variety of issues such as, for instance, the Hyde Amendment — it’s about racial justice for Black women of color, low-income women as it relates to reproductive justice. She understands why this policy has been so destructive and discriminatory against women of color and low-income women.

[Like] when you look at marijuana justice, when you look at the numbers of Black and brown people who have been incarcerated and have these drug charges, which have just stopped them, and been a barrier to moving forward with their lives.

So representation, it really does matter, because the lens by which you look at policies are lenses that others don’t have. And that’s because of who we are, our experiences and the pathways that we have had to walk and run to get to where we are. And so, you know, there’s a void when there are not the perspectives and the input and the leadership of Black women.

Yeah, absolutely. And so obviously, when [Harris] vacates that seat, there will be a void. I know you have a relationship with her. Have you spoken to the vice president-elect about when she might be vacating that seat?

Oh, no, no, no. It’s probably still too early. I don’t know, I have no idea. And I haven’t even seen any press reports. I mean, I’ve heard from her, but not about that.

Has she even given you any indication of who she might like to see as her successor? 

No.

Other people have already told me they want to see you as her successor. So, I have to ask you, is a job that you are interested in?

Well, there’s several African American women who would meet the test and who would be phenomenal in the Senate. I would be honored. Because you know, public service for Black women is not just about being elected; that’s another platform and framework for public service. The governor will make his decision. We will respect his decision, because he has to determine who he thinks best will serve California, he has to take into all of his considerations, and come up with his conclusion as to who he thinks would best fill that void and who would be able to work with him as we move forward on our California agenda. So it’s up to him, quite frankly, but I know that there are several African American women on the list who are fully prepared and could serve.

If it’s not you, do you still think that whoever the next senator of California is should be a Black woman? I know, there’s been some conversation about making history with say, the first Latino to represent California…

The void that Senator Harris would leave as an African American woman is a huge void. Not speaking to any other issue or making this about beating up anyone else. It’s about the void and the fact that since the first Senate session, I believe, African American women have had a total of about 10 years with Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. So 10 years out of hundreds of years. And so this void and this gap would be tremendous. I believe that the governor will take that into consideration.

I know that you have a relationship with President Elect Biden. And so I’m just wondering what you’ve also if you’ve had a chance to speak with him, and what you’ve told him about the Black women that you’d like to see help him govern. 

In the House and throughout the country, in the state legislatures, there are some brilliant and phenomenal African American women who could serve as cabinet officials. How many women do we have in the Congressional Black Caucus? All of us could serve in the cabinet. I know one consideration, of course, is making sure that the seats do not go, if they were vacated, to Republicans, but for the most part, most of the seats are strong Democratic seats. And so I think this provides a real opportunity for African American women in the House of Representatives to serve in a variety of positions.

My good friend of many years, [Ohio Democratic] Congresswoman Marcia Fudge for secretary of agriculture. I work with her — I’m on the appropriations committee, and I’m on the subcommittee on agriculture — and so I’ve had the privilege to not only work with Marcia as a colleague, but she’s a good friend. There’s nobody who knows ag issues like Congresswoman Fudge and I think she would be phenomenal as a secretary of ag, and I’m certain that her district would elect another Democrat to that seat.

Sticking with the House for a minute: Who are the other Black women that you would like to see in elected House leadership? 

I think that it’s time. I think that those of us who run in the past, we’ve shattered some of those glass ceilings. And we’ve broken some of those barriers, even though we may not have won the election. I think that now, more members see that the capacity, capabilities, the value and the strategic positioning and how Black women really do have the ability to help unite the caucus and bring [it] together. And so, yes, several are running. And, you know, I’m hoping that they win and I’m going to help.

If you are not headed to the Senate or headed to the cabinet, you were discussed for Speaker of the House after the historic 2018 midterms. I know how much respect you have, among your colleagues, and especially some of the younger women of color that you have mentored. Are you considering running this time? And is it time for a Black woman to hold that gavel?

I don’t think anyone could do what Speaker Pelosi has done in keeping this caucus together and winning elections. And I fully support her. When you look at Speaker Pelosi’s history and record, she’s probably been the greatest speaker ever because she’s had the most diverse caucus. And she has had the ability to raise money to make sure we elect more Democrats. She has supported women of color to assume committee chairs and vice chairs of committees. And so I think that, you know, I mean, I know she’s gonna be reelected, and I’m working to make sure that she is reelected as our speaker.

On her historic speakership: What do you think that has done to help this country’s political imagination around women in power?

It has shown that women lead and women lead on each and every issue, not only issues perceived as women’s issues, but every issue. And I think it’s also shown that especially with Speaker Pelosi, that racial equity matters. And that racial inclusion in the House of Representatives is an asset. And that we are able, and she has seen, especially with African American women and women of color in the House, how we work and how our legislative efforts really move forward, because we work with everyone, because we know that what’s good for women, and for our communities, as women of color for low-income communities.

I mean, she appointed me to chair the majority leader’s task force on poverty and opportunity, for example. She always talks about how she came to Congress—because one in five children live below the poverty line. Her keen understanding of those issues, that poverty not only affects women, it affects families, it affects children, it affects everyone across the board. African Americans have the highest percentage, but this is low-income, working families, poor, White families.

Speaker Pelosi has been able to see the issues that I want to champion, such as lifting people out of poverty … On COVID, I negotiated this in the HEROES bill targeting resources for Black and brown communities to deal with contact tracing and testing and follow up isolation and health care. She understood this, and we worked together to negotiate that. Her impact is broad and deep. And as a Black woman, I’ve been able to really help, not only my community, but all across the country on so many issues, because she understood it, and she got it.

And now we’re going to have one of us as vice president in the White House. This has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of work. And a lot of hope that we never lost sight of what we were working for and toward and, you know, this is just a major milestone for everybody.

Kamala Harris, America’s first female vice president-elect, makes history

Kamala Harris, America’s first female vice president-elect, makes history

Originally published by The 19th


In the centennial year of suffrage and 55 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris is projected to become the country’s highest-ranking woman in politics, according to Decision Desk HQ, joining President-elect Joe Biden in the White House as the first woman and Black and South Asian woman to serve as an American vice president.

It is a role that could reshape Americans’ perceptions of women and women of color in political leadership.

A century ago, when women were finally granted the right to vote, Harris’ historic candidacy was unimaginable and unthinkable for most Americans, said Johns Hopkins University historian Martha Jones.

“Except among Black women, there was no robust vision that would permit anyone to imagine where we are,” Jones said. “This is really the legacy of the Voting Rights Act. It is the legacy of women like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, who really bring Black women to Washington and begin to lay claim to Washington as a place where Black women will be office holders, influencers and more.”

On the campaign trail, first as a presidential candidate, and then as the vice presidential nominee, Harris often referenced her candidacies as “what we know can be, unburdened by what has been.”

Her narrative has often been a departure from that of her political rivals. Harris’ ascendance has often meant being the first to hold her position, as district attorney in San Francisco, and later as the attorney general of California.

Harris, 56, is the lone Black woman in the U.S. Senate, and only the second Black woman to serve in that capacity.

Harris was also the only Black woman to run for president in 2020, and only the third Black woman to run as a candidate for a major political party, the first in more than a generation.

Despite being capable and qualified, the path to this moment was never paved with certainty, said Glynda Carr, founder of Higher Heights.

“America is totally different in 2020 than when she ran for president,” said Carr, whose organization endorsed Harris during her presidential bid before she exited the race in December 2019. “The environment around living in a global pandemic, the continued attacks on Blackness and the racial reckoning that has begun in this country created the awakening of the possibilities of having a Black woman on the ticket that didn’t exist when she ran in the Democratic primary.”

In an interview with The 19th in August, days after being named the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Harris herself said Biden choosing her was a bold decision.

“Joe Biden had the audacity to choose a Black woman to be his running mate. How incredible is that?” Harris said. “That he decided he was going to do that thing that was about breaking one of the most substantial barriers that has existed in our country — and that he makes that decision with whatever risk that brings.”

Harris has helped to shift the notion of electability in American presidential politics and galvanized a crucial part of the electorate — the Black women who have long been the vanguard of the Democratic Party and pushed this cycle to be valued for their input as well as their output, said She the People co-founder Aimee Allison.

“Electability, first and foremost, is about who Black women are inspired by, moved by and willing to put our formidable voting and organizing prowess behind,” Allison said. “Having her on the ticket made the biggest difference this year in terms of being able to reach our voters, have higher turnout and get people to see themselves in the campaign.”

Harris earned her spot on the Democratic general election presidential ticket after a grueling party primary. After returning to the Senate, she continued to push for issues around race and gender, including legislation addressing disparities in pregnancy-related deaths, and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic related to housing, employment and public health data.

On the general election campaign trail, Harris’ status as an alumnae of historically Black Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc., sorority were also assets, fueling fundraising and mobilizing voters and volunteers.

Now a pioneer as vice president-elect, Harris will bring her lived experience as a Black and South Asian American woman to a role both symbolic and substantive, Carr said.

“Her experience as a prosecutor, an executive, and a legislator positions her to be an asset Day One in the White House,” Carr said of Harris. “She literally is going to bring the voices of women, women of color, and Black women into that room when she steps into the Oval Office for the first time.

Harris’ candidacy and future governing represent a new chapter in leadership for women of color, and Black women in particular, said veteran Democratic strategist Karen Finney.

“It normalizes the role that Black women have played throughout the history of this country, that we’re leaders,” Finney said. “For so long, Black women have been in the background and haven’t always gotten the credit they deserve. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s always hard to be the first.”

Seeing Harris at decision-making tables, tackling foreign policy, the economy, climate change or criminal justice can demonstrate that women belong in the highest positions of power, Finney said.

It is not just Harris’ political leadership as a woman of color that will be on display in 2021 and beyond, but that of an increasingly diverse Congress, said Jones.

“The hardest thing for someone like Harris is looking squarely at that gap and that distance and then asking what do you do as someone with a seat at the table to address that? We will increasingly see what it means for Black women to steer this country on critical questions.”

Harris’ candidacy and political success could serve as a model for Black women and women of color seeking higher office, on the continuum laid forth by Shirley Chisholm — in whose spirit Harris launched her campaign for president last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“There will be generations of women who use her blueprint for her political and elected leadership,” Carr said. “What she actually represents is a pipeline.”

With Harris headed to the White House, her Senate seat will be open — and while California is solidly blue, meaning that the balance of the chamber will not be disrupted by her departure, some are calling specifically for Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill Harris’ vacancy with a Black woman. The California House delegation currently includes Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass — also discussed as a potential vice presidential nominee this cycle — as well as Rep. Maxine Waters.

Harris’ candidacies have also shone a light on how far the country still has to go on issues of race and gender in politics, said Tina Tchen, chief executive officer of Times Up.

“We are trying to change cultural norms that have existed for millenia.

It wasn’t going to change in four years, and it wasn’t going to change with just one election,” Tchen continued. “Her candidacy is a huge step forward in that generations-long battle for progress. We need to celebrate that step forward and build on it.”