Barbara Lee’s Bid for House Leadership Could Usher in Ideological Shift for Democrats

"We want moral leaders," said Hawaii congressional candidate Kaniela Ing, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.

[Photo: Barbara Lee speaking at a podium]
Rep. Barbara Lee has often centered reproductive rights in her politics. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) officially launched a bid for Democratic House Caucus Chair this week, signaling a potentially significant ideological departure in party leadership.

Lee is a running to be the party’s fourth-in-command, an opening created by the defeat last month of former chair Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) by Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The chair holds significant power in the party apparatus, directing meetings with House Democrats and helping to steer the party’s agenda.  

If elected, Lee would be the first Black woman to hold a leadership spot in either party. But her bid also signals a potential shift toward the progressive wing of the party, the first major institutional crack through the gate since Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-MN) failed bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Those differences are in part articulated by the gap between Lee and the current leadership on abortion. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), while pro-choice, said she doesn’t believe abortion rights should be a litmus test for Democratic candidates.

Lee, however, has often centered reproductive rights in her politics. In response to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lee wrote: “I’m ready to fight this every step of the way—we must make sure abortion care is safe, legal & accessible in all 50 states.” She recently became the co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, and she has authored legislation to eliminate the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from being used for most abortion services and disproportionately harms communities of color and people with low incomes.

“Barbara Lee has been an unequivocal champion for abortion rights in general and abortion coverage,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, a group that supports organizations and individuals in lifting bans that deny abortion coverage, in an interview with Rewire.News. “I think she fundamentally understands what it means to be a low-income women, who is likely to be a low-income women of color, who is denied abortion coverage simply because she’s poor.”

Lopez said that All* Above All’s constituency—younger folks, folks of color, women, and immigrants—sees a lot of hope for the direction of the party in Lee’s bid.

”They’re a generation of folks that really look [at] issues of reproductive rights and reproductive justice as intersectional. They see it tied to economic justice … [and] LGBTQ liberation .… If we look at [Congresswoman] Lee’s record as an example, she cares a lot about HIV/AIDS and marijuana legalization,” she said. “The way that she has led in Congress is the future of how we need to approach this issue.“

First elected to office in 1998, Lee rapidly became known for her staunchly anti-war rhetoric. In 2001, three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against authorization of force against those responsible for the attacks

Lee worked on Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential campaign while at Mill’s College, where she became friends with Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and famously said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Lee is no different, having often sat a table where she was one of the only dissenting voices.  

More recently, Lee was one of just 35 representatives to vote against the Protect and Serve Act of 2018, a so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill that would impose harsher penalties for assaulting police officers at a time when police officers’ lack of accountability for violence is a flashpoint.

“I am so inspired to fight alongside you as we work to win back the majority,” Lee wrote in a letter to her colleagues announcing her bid. “There is nothing more important than returning bold Democratic leadership to Congress.”

Progressive political action group Our Revolution last year released The People’s Platform, which tracks Congressional representatives’ commitment to legislation on issues like Medicare for All, college for all, and Lee’s Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act.

Of the four Democrats in House Leadership, Rep. Crowley has the highest rating according to platform’s scorecard at 50 percent. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) received a 25 percent, and both Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Pelosi received a 13 percent rating.

Lee will be running against Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), who is the current Democratic Caucus vice chair and holds a 38 percent rating from the scorecard.

Lee received a rating of 100 percent.

Hawaii state Rep. Kaniela Ing, a democratic Socialist who is running for U.S. Congress, said that if elected, he will support Democratic leadership that advocates for explicit policy change to solve national issues like homelessness and a lack of insurance care.

“Frankly a lot of Democrats don’t know how to talk about issues that way, and it’s all about process and they operate in the same frame that Republicans use,” Ing told Rewire.News. “Barbara is the one that talks like normal people, at the more root of problems, and that’s what Democratic socialism is really about.”

The vote will come down to Democrats in the House’s next congressional session. Lee has been a stalwart progressive voice in the House for years and has drawn support from members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, (which she co-chaired) like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). And Lee is making her bid during a time when democratic socialists and Progressive Democrats, like Ocasio-Cortez and Ing, will likely come swinging into Congress.

“The value of leaders in the Democratic party for decades has been how much [money] they can raise in their caucus,” said Ing. “For candidates like myself and Ocasio-Cortez, we’re not going to spend full time as telemarketers and moonlighting as congresspeople. We want moral leaders.”