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‘You’ve Got to Keep Pressing Him on Every Issue That’s Inappropriate and Lawless and Wrong’

Oakland representative and progressive stalwart Barbara Lee on the best way to fight off political depression.  


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Barbara Lee 
Occupation: U.S. representative from the 13th Congressional District
Age: 70
Residence: Oakland

San Francisco: You’ve been active politically for nearly half a century. Is there any precedent for what we’re seeing in Washington right now?
Barbara Lee: I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, and I couldn’t go to public schools because I was black. I couldn’t go to restaurants with my dad, who was a military officer, because we were a black family. I remember those days very vividly. And the signs from this administration are that that’s where they want to go in terms of their policies.

Is Trump forcing your Democratic colleagues on the hill to finally catch up to you on the far left?
Elected officials often catch up with where the people are. Like raising the minimum wage, for example: People want a living wage, and that for me is a progressive value. I think you could talk to people around the country about a living wage and you’ll get agreement on it everywhere.

Nancy Pelosi recently called Steve Bannon a white supremacist, which these days seems almost tame. Is your mandate now not just to talk tough, but to resist in more meaningful ways? 
People want authenticity. A lot of us are activists! They want to see us marching with them and being active, and also helping educate them. A good example recently is the grassroots emailing and showing up at Republican members’ offices.

Is that the best way to get through to members of Congress?
My goodness, let me tell you. I have to thank my constituents, who are the most active and engaged in the country. I think the rest of the country’s finally catching up with how we do politics in the Bay Area. But it’s a good sign when you hear the phones are flooded and the email and Twitter accounts are really vibrant and active. So the best thing is to keep doing it all, and to show up at their offices and say, “You’re not representing us.”

What issues should we be really focusing on?
We need to pay attention to [Trump’s] cabinet officials. What he’s trying to do is dismantle the public sector. And where are the places where people of color and minorities have been able to break through—to be gainfully employed? In the public sector. So this is going to create more gaps and disparities in communities of color.

It feels like the normal rules of politics are out the window. So should Democrats dig their heels in? Should you even agree to have a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee?
I think Democrats are having that dialogue and coming up with a third way. But my personal position is we’ve got to do everything we can do to not allow people to get hurt. We need to fight, fight, fight his agenda in a big way. If something is suggested that would create a million jobs with benefits, we have a duty to figure out how to do that. But the Trump administration has laid down the gauntlet in terms of the rules. He won’t even make public his income tax returns.

Exactly—and lots of people agree that it’s incredible he didn’t release them. But that’s not impacting people’s lives the way the travel ban is. So, symbolically, is that worth the fight? 
You’ve got to keep pressing him on every issue that’s inappropriate and lawless and wrong. I would not let up on any president that wouldn’t release his or her income taxes. And we can’t let up on the immigration ban and we can’t let up on the wall or trying to deny funds to sanctuary cities. We can’t let him off the hook and say, “That was last week’s fight—now we have bigger fights.”

It’s all pretty overwhelming. What do you say to someone who’s having trouble every day reading the news?
The first thing is: Don’t be overwhelmed. My background is in psychiatric social work, and I know what happens when people become overwhelmed. They become immobile, depressed. So I hope people see this as a moment to rise up and engage even in small things like working as a volunteer. We’ve got probably five or six seats in California we can take back. There are going to be many, many vehicles [through which] to get engaged. So I’d plead with people not to be overwhelmed but to find something they can do. And get ready for the long haul. This is a very serious moment—a dangerous moment—and everybody has to get engaged to keep this country moving forward.


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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