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Nilsen writes: "Nancy Pelosi has created a third co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, and named Lee to fill the position."

Rep. Barbara Lee (second from left) marches with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelos (third from left) and other congresswomen during the Women’s March on January 20, 2018. (photo: Getty)
Rep. Barbara Lee (second from left) marches with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelos (third from left) and other congresswomen during the Women’s March on January 20, 2018. (photo: Getty)

Barbara Lee Is a Progressive Icon in the House - and She's About to Join Democratic Leadership

By Ella Nilsen, Vox

05 December 18

Nancy Pelosi has created a third co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, and named Lee to fill the position.

fter falling short in an election for a top House Democratic leadership position, progressive champion Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), will still have a spot at the leadership table.

Lee, who ran for the role of Democratic Caucus Chair last week and lost narrowly to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), will essentially have a new position created for her. Her role will be the third co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, an important body that votes on which members get to sit on certain committees. As a co-chair, Lee will have the power to influence who will shape House Democrats’ agenda and investigations.

Lee told Vox in an interview Tuesday that her new responsibilities will be “to make sure all voices, all perspectives are part of the committee process.”

Lee also owes her new authority to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become the next Speaker of the House. Pelosi announced she would create a third co-chair position for Lee on Friday, in addition to current co-chairs, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA). Pelosi did so after an outcry from some progressive members of the House that a woman of color hadn’t made it into Democratic leadership, especially after a huge 2018 midterms win was powered in part by the candidacies and efforts of women of color.

“Congresswoman Lee has been a preeminent voice in ending the scourge of HIV/AIDS around the world and fighting poverty in America, and a powerful advocate for peace,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday. “As a leading African American woman with a place at the decision table, the appointment of Congresswoman Lee is even more meaningful as we mark the birthday of her friend: the trailblazing Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.”

Lee’s new steering committee co-chair position won’t be nearly as visible as Caucus Chair. But Pelosi creating a slot for her does a number of things: it helps placates the progressive base, diversifies Democrats’ leadership slate, and gives House liberals another advocate in a high place.

Why Lee is so beloved among progressives

Barbara Lee is beloved among progressives in a way few members of Congress are.

Lee made a name for herself in 2001 for being the only member of the US House and the Senate to vote against authorizing the use of military force in Afghanistan after the September 11 terror attacks. She also voted against the war in Iraq, and has been a vocal advocate for the anti-war movement in Congress. Lee she still remembers how she felt taking the lone anti-war vote in 2001, she told Vox.

“I was sitting the Capitol and had evacuated” on 9/11, she said. “My sense of loss for the victims and my families and my friends was foremost in my mind. Naturally, like everyone, I wanted to do something.”

But she staunchly believed that President George W. Bush launching military action in Afghanistan would turn into a war with no end in sight. (The war is still ongoing today.)

“It set the stage for a perpetual war,” Lee said. “After I was the only one who voted against it, all hell broke loose. Death threats, phone calls. I had to steady myself to not get angry and respond to their anger. It was a moment of truth for me.

Lee’s progressive credentials were burnished long ago by taking an anti-war stance that literally no other member of Congress would — and history has vindicated her. In some ways, she’s seen as the original progressive rebel in the House.

“Barbara Lee is a legend in our caucus,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told reporters last week after the Democratic caucus vote.

Years after she cast her no vote on the war, Lee said one of the most important things she accomplished that day was to demonstrate the right of Americans and members of Congress to dissent against things they believe are morally wrong. It’s a message she said she’s tried to impart on freshmen members — to take a principled stand, even when it means standing against the will of your own party.

“When they want to cast a no vote ... how difficult that may be,” Lee said. “But you have to sometimes really step out, voice your opinion and recognize that central to our democracy is the ability to dissent and not always go along with the flow.”

Guiding younger members

Lee was active on the campaign trail for candidates in 2018, and many of liberal members of the incoming class speak about her as a teacher and mentor who has put in the time to help them grow as politicians.

“I think she represents the kind of commitment, grit, mentorship of generations,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Lee said she has done that work because she didn’t have a mentor herself when she was a new member of Congress.

“When I came to Congress, I came in a special election, so I didn’t have a freshman class to support and work for me,” she said. “In many ways I had to fend for myself, I had to learn a lot.”

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the most visible face of the left in 2018, wrote in an Instagram post that casting her vote for Lee for caucus chair last week nearly brought her to tears.

“It is a rare and treasured opportunity to cast a vote that makes you want to cry — to have a choice that encompasses so many values, hopes, and aspirations,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “That’s how I felt today voting for @repbarbaralee.”

To these young members, many who are themselves women of color, Lee’s loss in the caucus chair race felt devastating, and personal. Though Jeffries is decades younger than Lee and filled many other Democratic members’ desire for young blood at the top, he doesn’t have the same progressive legacy that Lee carries.

“Am I disappointed? Yes,” Jayapal told reporters last week. “I was so excited about making some history today with the first African American woman, the first woman to chair the caucus, and I hoped the results of this election — powered by black women, voters of color and women — would have some resonance to this race.”

Democrats creating leadership positions isn’t new

This is hardly the first time Pelosi or other Democratic leaders have expanded the size of the leadership team by creating new positions.

Pelosi recently did the same with progressive Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), naming him to the newly created position of chair of the Democratic Policy and Campaign Committee, a body that already had three co-chairs (Cicilline previously served as one of those).

And over in the Senate, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) added Sen. Bernie Sanders — the progressive icon who ran for president in 2016 — to the Senate Democrats expanded leadership team in order to give a voice to the party’s leftist base. There are currently 11 Democrats in Senate leadership — far more than Senate Republicans, the party that in power.

Pelosi’s official reasoning for creating these new positions has been that a large number of people in leadership reflects the size and diversity of the overall caucus.

The fact that Lee went from being the only member of Congress to oppose the War in Afghanistan in 2001 to nearly being the number four House Democrat in 2018 is telling.

But it also underscores another point; each time Lee has run for a higher rank in the caucus, she has narrowly fallen short. She lost to Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) for the position of caucus Vice Chair in 2016, by just two votes. (Sanchez originally also ran for the Caucus Chair position, but dropped out after her husband was indicted on federal criminal charges).

Lee was hoping her experience would put her over the top for a top spot in leadership, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Democrats are prioritizing unity going forward

Some of Democrats’ biggest fights about the identity of the party played out in the Caucus Chair races last week — issues of age and gender. Lee agreed with the suggestion that “ageism and sexism” were at play in her loss. (Lee is 72 years old; Jeffries is 48.)

“I absolutely think that’s the case,” she told reporters last week. “I’m a black woman and the institutional barriers are still there, so we just keep fighting.” (Jeffries is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.)

But even those members who wanted to see Lee as the new face of the House Democratic Caucus agreed they would set aside their differences and rally around Jeffries.

“Hakeem is a great guy and of course we’re all going to unite around him and his leadership, and we’re not going to let this stop us from being a united caucus for the people,” Jayapal said.

“As Democrats, we unite,” added Swalwell — another Lee supporter. “Even President Trump has lamented that Republicans don’t unite, and that has been our strength. In the last two years on every big vote, we stuck together. You’ll see that again in the next 37 days to January 3.”

Lee will still be helping shape the party’s priorities — just more behind the scenes.

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