Political Notebook: In US Senate race, Lee banks on LGBTQ support

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 6, 2023
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Congressmember Barbara Lee rode in the Oakland Pride parade in 2019 and intends to be at Pride festivities this weekend. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Congressmember Barbara Lee rode in the Oakland Pride parade in 2019 and intends to be at Pride festivities this weekend. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

As she crisscrosses the state vying to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) next year, Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is banking on the support of LGBTQ voters to help her survive the March primary and advance to the November ballot. In terms of her record fighting for LGBTQ rights over her 24 years serving in the House, Lee argues it pales in comparison to her opponents in the race.

She co-founded the Equality Caucus in Congress and continues to serve as one of its vice chairs. As an appropriator Lee has been a tireless advocate for HIV and AIDS funding, especially for minority communities disproportionately impacted by the diseases.

She worked with former President George W. Bush to establish the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, to address the epidemic globally and is now fighting for its renewal this year. She also pushed through a change in federal law during the Obama administration to allow people living with HIV to be organ donors for one another.

This week, President Joe Biden nominated Lee to serve as the U.S. representative to the 78th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. If confirmed it will be her eighth time serving in the post and give Lee a global platform to continue advocating on behalf of LGBTQ individuals.

"I think it is important as a candidate to communicate what I have done. When no one else led on LGBTQ-plus community issues, I did and will do so all my life," said Lee, 77, during a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Her being a straight ally is rooted in Lee's childhood growing up in El Paso, Texas. There, one of her mother's best friends was a lesbian.

"My mother always taught us we better not make any distinction between her life, how she loved, and what she did. This was her personal, private business," recalled Lee. "As a child my mom taught us to treat people with equality no matter their backgrounds or who they love. I did not come to this recently; it has always been a part of my life."

As a high school student, having moved to San Fernando, California, Lee worked with the local chapter of the NAACP to integrate her school's cheerleading squad. The 15-year-old became the first Black female cheerleader at San Fernando High School.

"The NAACP helped me change the rules of the game," said Lee. "We fought and helped to dismantle that process."

It is a chapter in her life many voters outside of the Bay Area may not be aware of about Lee, having never before been asked to cast a ballot for her candidacy. It is one she now highlights due to finding herself competing against two well-known Democratic House members from Southern California, Congressmembers Adam Schiff of Los Angeles and Katie Porter of Irvine.

It is partly why Lee expresses confidence in being able to attract a winning margin in the primary race. With a fourth Democratic candidate, Silicon Valley executive Lexi Reese, a relative unknown as a first-time candidate, Lee told the B.A.R. she sees a path to making it to the fall contest.

"Turn out in Northern California, and especially in my congressional district, has always been the highest in the state. We have to solidify my votes in Northern California, and I believe I can take a large chunk of votes in Southern California and split the vote between the three other candidates," said Lee, noting that the mayor of Irvine has endorsed her candidacy. "I may not win in Orange County but I have a huge amount of voters in Orange County who support me. We need to be strategic and make sure they get to know me."

In order to do so, she is focused on a targeted media campaign and a strong ground game to get her name and message before voters. Lee makes no secret that she is likely to lack the financial resources as that of her opponents, having reported having a bit more than $1.4 million in cash on hand as of August 1.

"Communicating to voters and getting my voters to vote is key to this election," said Lee. "California is a big state; it costs a lot of money to be on the air. I plan to use the resources people donate to me judicially and strategically."

Pleased with PPIC polling showing her at 13% support — Porter came in at 19% and Schiff at 16% — Lee told the B.A.R. she is focused on her Senate bid when asked about speculation she could decide to seek reelection to her House seat. The filing deadline is in early December, and Lee has yet to endorse anyone seeking to succeed her next year.

"I am running for U.S. Senate," said Lee, adding that she is "in the process of raising money. Let me tell you, I am gaining a lot of support throughout the state."

Lee argued she doesn't need to raise as much money as other candidates for the grassroots campaign she is running. The part of her strategy relying on in-person events will play out in Oakland this weekend when Lee plans to participate in the East Bay city's annual Pride parade and celebration.

"I definitely intend to be there," Lee told the B.A.R.

She is also focused on helping to push through a five-year reauthorization of PEPFAR out of the House this month. It has become embroiled in heated debates over abortion rights and the funding of the government led by conservative congressmembers, putting PEPFAR's future in doubt.

"Only 25% of the members of Congress were here when we first authorized PEPFAR. Now we got MAGA extremist Republicans, some of whom want to blow it up, and some who don't know about it," said Lee, expressing confidence in seeing the impasse be resolved. "It has always been bipartisan."

It is one of the issues Lee pledged will remain a focus should she be elected to the Senate. It is also why Lee hopes to have the support of LGBTQ voters in the race.

"Look into my record and you will see what I have done and delivered in the past is a driver and indicator for what I will do in the Senate," said Lee. "I will be making sure the LGBTQ-plus community has a seat at the table. That is my life's work and I intend to do that in the Senate on behalf of everyone."

Lazar ends Assembly bid

Due to the unexpected death of a sibling, Alex Lazar has ended his 2024 bid for the Assembly District 6 seat. Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) is departing as he is seeking to be elected his city's mayor next year.

Lazar, a gay former aide to San Francisco Democrats Mayor London Breed and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi, had been vying to become one of the first out LGBTQ state legislators from the Sacramento region. But he announced Tuesday that he was dropping out of the race following the August 19 death of his older brother, Eleazar Rodriguez Jr. of Gilroy, California.

"Eleazar's passing, among other factors, led me to the difficult decision to close the Lazar for Assembly 2024 committee in order to spend more time with my family," stated Lazar.

As the Political Notebook noted in a July profile of Lazar, there are a number of out leaders seeking to succeed McCarty in the Legislature. Evan Minton, a onetime legislative aide for Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), is running to be the first transgender man elected to a legislative seat in California.

Also in the race are Carlos Marquez, a gay married man who formerly served as executive director of American Civil Liberties Union California Action; lesbian Sacramento Municipal Utility District Director Rosanna Herber, and Log Cabin Republicans Sacramento President Preston Romero. They are part of a crowded field of Sacramento leaders aiming to survive the March primary and be one of the two candidates advancing to the fall ballot.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, returns Monday, September 11.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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