WASHINGTON — Representative Barbara Lee, who stood alone against authorizing military action after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and remains a leading antiwar voice in Congress, entered the 2024 Senate race in California on Tuesday, becoming the third prominent Democrat to run for the seat being vacated by Dianne Feinstein.
Ms. Lee, 76, the highest-ranking Black woman appointed to Democratic leadership in the House, unveiled her Senate bid in a video that highlighted the racism she fought against in her youth and the struggles she faced as a single mother and a survivor of domestic violence.
“No one is rolling out the welcome mat, especially for someone like me,” Ms. Lee said in the video. “I was the girl they didn’t allow in.”
The announcement, which had been anticipated for weeks, has further set the stage for one of the most competitive and expensive Senate races in California in decades. Ms. Feinstein, 89, who was first elected in 1992, plans to retire at the end of her term. The race to replace her now includes Ms. Lee, who represents a district that includes Oakland; Representative Katie Porter from Orange County; and Representative Adam Schiff from Los Angeles.
In an interview, Ms. Lee said she wanted her campaign to give a platform to missing voices, including on the burden of inflation on families, the high costs of child care and other issues.
Senator Dianne Feinstein to Retire
The Democrat of California, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, plans to serve out her term but will not run for re-election in 2024.
- Her Announcement: Senator Dianne Feinstein, 89, made official a retirement that was long assumed by her colleagues, who had grown concerned about her memory issues.
- Key Moments: For generations, Ms. Feinstein has been an iconic American political figure. Here are nine key moments from her decades-long political career.
- The Race to Succeed Her: Ms. Feinstein’s retirement clears the way for what is expected to be a costly and competitive contest for the seat she has held for three decades.
- The Candidates: Three prominent Democrats — Representatives Katie Porter, Adam B. Schiff and Barbara Lee — have declared that they are running for Ms. Feinstein’s seat.
“There are so many issues that I have experience with that I don’t believe are being raised in the Senate as they should be,” she said. “Lived experience and representation in government not only matter for women or for people of color — they help strengthen the country.”
Ms. Lee, who plans to hold a rally on Sunday in the San Francisco Bay Area, faces an uphill battle. She has not faced a competitive challenger in her 25 years in Congress. Her two Democratic opponents, Ms. Porter and Mr. Schiff, have more robust fund-raising networks and have made national names for themselves as antagonists of former President Donald J. Trump and his administration.
Ms. Lee has long been known as the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing military action after the Sept. 11 attacks. She spent the last two decades trying to repeal that expansive war authorization, which presidents have used to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to carrying out military strikes elsewhere in the world.
That antiwar stance has helped make Ms. Lee popular in her district and throughout the party, but she has not used it to build a fund-raising colossus. In the last three campaigns, she has raised a total of $5.83 million — less than a quarter of the $25.5 million Ms. Porter raised during just the 2022 campaign cycle.
At the end of December, Ms. Lee had only $52,353 in her campaign account, according to the latest report filed with the Federal Election Commission. By comparison, Ms. Porter had $7.4 million, and Mr. Schiff — who became a prodigious fund-raiser after his turn as the lead Democrat and then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee during the Trump years — reported having $20.9 million.
Still, high-dollar fund-raising has not always translated into success in California. And Ms. Lee has the advantage of having her base in the Bay Area’s Alameda County. When it comes to turnout, Alameda County is home to some of the most reliable Democratic primary voters in the state.
Ms. Lee’s campaign could attract support from national Black leaders and women’s groups focused on increasing the number of Black women in office. There are no Black women currently serving in the Senate. Only two Black women have ever served in the chamber in its 233-year history: Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who served one term in the 1990s, and Vice President Kamala Harris.
A super PAC supporting Ms. Lee, called She Speaks for Me, has already been registered with the F.E.C.
Ms. Lee said she was building a campaign similar to the one led by Karen Bass, who won election last year as the first female mayor of Los Angeles and the city’s second Black mayor. Ms. Bass’s operation, which relied not only on extensive advertising but also a strong network of volunteers and canvassers, helped her defeat a billionaire real estate developer.
“Money is always big,” Ms. Lee said. But it wasn’t everything, she added. “We have to have a ground game. We have to inspire people to vote and to believe that I can deliver for them.”
Her announcement video touches on the racial segregation she endured as a child and her hardships as a young woman, including having “an abortion in a back alley when they all were illegal” and escaping a violent marriage. It also seeks to remind voters of her legacy beyond the war-authorization vote, highlighting her work on L.G.B.T.Q. legislation and her push to make global AIDS funding a priority.
Ms. Lee has written about her family’s experience in segregated El Paso, Texas, where she was born. Her mother almost died giving birth to her — she was denied admission into a hospital because she was Black and had to deliver Ms. Lee on a gurney in a hallway. As a child, Ms. Lee had to drink from separate water fountains and could not step inside one of El Paso’s most historic theaters. After moving to California’s San Fernando Valley, Ms. Lee became her high school’s first Black cheerleader after she successfully fought a discriminatory selection process that kept Black women out of its squads.
“To do nothing has never been an option for me,” Ms. Lee said in the video.
Ms. Lee went on to become one of the first students to integrate the University of Texas at El Paso. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, inspired Ms. Lee to go into politics. By then, Ms. Lee was a Black Panther volunteer and a single mother with two young boys pursuing a degree in social work at Mills College in Oakland. She went to work for Representative Ronald Dellums of Oakland and eventually became his chief of staff before serving in the California Legislature. She was elected to the House in 1998.
The Senate race has already divided top Democrats.
Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, has endorsed Mr. Schiff and called donors and supporters on his behalf. Ms. Porter has the support of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was her professor at Harvard Law School. A crucial endorsement in the race could come from Senator Bernie Sanders, one of Ms. Lee’s allies and the winner of the state’s Democratic presidential primary in 2020.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.