Congresswoman a national figure; was lone dissenter against war on terrorism
SANTA CRUZ – President Bush and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani may be the new post-Sept. 11 heroes for most of the United States, but in liberal pockets across the country, Congresswoman Barbara Lee – the Oakland Democrat who was the lone dissenter against the war on terrorism – is the leader du jour.
“There’s no doubt she’s a national figure now,” said Scott Lynch, a spokesman for Washington D.C.-based Peace Action. “She’s a hero to the entire progressive side of the electorate.”
Saturday was declared “Barbara Lee Day” in Santa Cruz where a sold-out crowd packed the aisles of a revamped movie theater. Supporters jumped to their feet again and again, hooting and cheering when she told them “the lifeblood of democracy is the right to dissent.”
“She’s become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for justice, peace and a thorough re-examination of United States foreign policy,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn, who gave Lee a shiny key to the city.
The compliments have been echoed across the country.
In Eugene, Ore., she’s been named winner of the Wayne Morse Integrity in Government Award for 2002.
Kimberly Ead, director of the Peace and Human Rights Project in Burlington, Vt., said in her community, Lee “means hope for our political system.”
The most admired people in the United States these days are George and Laura Bush, Colin Powell and Rudolph Giuliani, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll. Lee didn’t even make the top 20 women’s list, which included Madonna and Christine Whitman.
The poll of 1,019 adults was taken in December and has an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.
But Michael Carrigan, program director of Salem-based Oregon Peace Works, said national polls don’t necessarily reflect the views of the peace movement.
“We certainly don’t see Bush as a hero. The people we admire are people like Barbara Lee, who had the courage to take a stand,” he said.
Lee’s profile among the left rose dramatically after her Sept. 14 vote against a resolution giving sweeping war powers to the president.
Before then, said Carrigan – a longtime peace activist – he had never even heard of her.
“It’s like night and day,” he said.
While the high profile vote drew Lee laudits from anti-war activists, it prompted death threats and vehement hatred from other Americans who felt she was unwilling to stand up for her country.
Council Nedd, a member of a Washington D.C.-based network of conservative African-Americans called Project 21, said Lee doesn’t deserve to be called a hero.
“She gets a lot of attention for her wild rhetoric and vapid platitudes, but I wouldn’t say she’s an effective legislator, and that’s what she was elected for,” said Nedd.
Jerald Udinsky, a Republican financial economist who is running against Lee for her Congressional seat this fall, said Lee’s anti-war vote was what motivated him to challenge her.
“I was outraged,” he said, “that she didn’t support America defending itself from a direct attack.”
Despite widespread opposition to Lee, Udinsky said he’s been unable to raise anywhere near the $500,000 Lee has collected for her campaign from labor organizations, peace groups and others, according to data from The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington D.C.
“The national party feels there is a relatively low probability of success here, so it’s hard to get funding,” said Udinsky. “She’s going to be hard to beat.”
Born in El Paso, Texas, Lee is a self-described army brat – her father is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. She studied social work and was a community organizer before seeking office. She was elected to the House of Representatives for the traditionally Democratic ninth district of California – including Berkeley and Oakland – in a 1998 special election to fill the seat of retiring Congressman Ron Dellums for whom Lee had worked as an intern.
She’s been a voice against war in Congress in the past – in 1998, she and four other members of the House voted against authorizing the bombing of Iraq after it refused to allow United Nations weapons inspections, and in 1999, she was the lone dissenter voting against sending U.S. forces into Yugoslavia.
But it wasn’t until Bush asked Congress to back him in his efforts to fight terrorism that she became nationally known for her positions.
“There’s a lot of people who think President Bush is a hero, but he’s not my hero,” said Carolyn Bninski at the Boulder, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. “Barbara Lee has a lot of courage. She listened to her inner voice and took a stand against what the popular culture was promoting. Now that’s heroic.”