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In 'Much-Needed and Significant Positive Step' for Democratic Party, Barbara Lee Announces Bid for House Caucus Chair

Noting Lee's long record as a progressive champion, observers pointed out, "It would represent a major ideological shift in the party leadership."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) accepts the Elizabeth Taylor Legislative Leadership Award at the AIDSWatch 2016 Positive Leadership Award Reception in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation)

Long-time progressive champion Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on Monday officially announced her widely speculated and highly anticipated candidacy to serve as chair of the Democratic Caucus, the party's fourth-highest ranking position in the House, for the next congressional session.

"Whether it's working across the aisle to enact HIV/AIDS laws, or bringing the Sanders and Clinton campaigns together behind a cohesive and progressive Democratic Platform, my career has been dedicated to finding common ground and delivering results," Lee wrote in a letter to her Democratic colleagues.

The letter outlines "three deeply held beliefs" on which Lee is basing her campaign:

  1. The strength of our caucus lies in our diversity of experiences and ideas.
  2. Our caucus is at its best when everyone has an opportunity to contribute and collaborate.
  3. Our caucus has the talent and the vision to improve the lives of all people.

"There is nothing more important than returning bold Democratic leadership to Congress," Lee's letter declares. "By putting people first, we will regain the majority and strengthen it for the future."

"I know many Trump districts and rural districts and I know how people are struggling and suffering. ...It's about communicating that, and that's what I want to do—bring people together."
—Rep. Barbara Lee

Lee is facing off against a fellow congresswoman from California, Linda Sánchez, who beat out Lee's 2016 bid to serve as the caucus's vice chair by just two votes.

The chair role is currently held by outgoing Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who was often seen as the heir to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi until last month, when he was defeated by primary challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political newcomer and vocal democratic socialist who trounced Crowley by a full 15 points.

Ocasio-Cortez, who is 28, is among the Democratic candidates and members of Congress who have spoken out in favor of 72-year-old Lee's candidacy. While Lee is aware of the growing demand for the Democratic Party to elevate a new, younger, generation of leaders, as she told Politico, "millennials and young people know my record—it's really about our ideas, how we engage with people, and how we listen to what the new generation is saying to us."

If selected, Lee would be the first African-American woman, Democrat or Republican, to hold a congressional leadership position. "When you look at the history of the Democratic Party and the Democratic leadership, African-American women," she said, "we've been the backbone of the Democratic Party—we should be in the face of leadership also."

Although she is aware of the potential milestone, Lee emphasized her ability to unite Democrats across demographics. "Poverty affects everyone: rural, urban, people of color, and white working class," she said. "We have a lot more in common than not...and the Republicans and [President] Donald Trump have tried to divide us."

"If Barbara Lee becomes Democratic Caucus Chair, it would represent a major ideological shift in the party leadership. Lee has co-sponsored Medicare for All, free college, reproductive rights, private prison ban, and keeping fossil fuels in the ground."
—Waleed Shahid, Cynthia for New York
"But when you listen to, and talk to white working-class men who have lost jobs, I feel their pain," Lee continued. "Because in African-American communities, we get that. ...I know many Trump districts and rural districts and I know how people are struggling and suffering. ...It's about communicating that, and that's what I want to do—bring people together."

Lee's potential takeover of the post was immediately praised as "a much-needed and significant positive step for the party."

Waleed Shahid, policy director for New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, noted the move "would represent a major ideological shift in the party leadership."

Journalist Glenn Greenwald highlighted Lee's bold opposition to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has enabled three presidents to carry out seemingly endless wars in the Middle East.

"Her vote in opposing the blank check to war is one of the most courageous acts of modern time," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The Intercept last week. "I am proud to support Barbara Lee for conference chair. I will be rallying my colleagues in the progressive caucus for her and also incoming freshmen whose campaigns I have helped."

Khanna also noted the struggle that many African Americans face while running for political office, and the importance of acknowledging the work of members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which Lee previously led.

"We need to make sure someone from the CBC is in the top three leadership positions," Khanna concluded. "The CBC has been the moral force for most of the progressive legislation Congress has passed in the past 30 years."

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