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Looking-Glass Politics

Rep. Barbara Lee Cast the Sole Vote Against Military Retaliation for the Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks. Think Her Career Is Over? You Don't Know the East Bay.

June 16, 2002|GARY RIVLIN

Plumes of gray hair spill out from beneath the straw hat of a rope-thin woman working in the garden at a small bungalow in the flatlands of Berkeley. Early Neil Young blares from a boombox so loud that she spies our small entourage only when we are already at her gate. Her weathered face betrays displeasure at the intrusion, until she notices her local congresswoman among our group. With a gardening implement still in hand, she moves toward Barbara Lee. Apparently she has something to say to the woman who, since Sept. 11, might just rank as the single most vilified elected official in America.

Three days after the terrorist attacks last September, Lee joined her colleagues at the National Cathedral for a memorial service attended by five U.S. presidents, past and present. The next order of business that day was a congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to use military force against the perpetrators of the attacks. The measure passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House. Lee cast the sole vote in opposition.

Before that day, Lee had served California's 9th Congressional District--an area that encompasses Berkeley, Oakland and its surrounding suburbs--in relative anonymity, a diligent but introverted two-term congresswoman toiling in the shadow of a beloved predecessor. That all changed with a single vote. Across the country, radio talk-show hosts rained invectives on Lee's head, rendering her a symbol of inappropriate dissent at a time of unity and flag-waving national pride.

David Horowitz, a former leftie-turned- conservative social critic, accused her of being a "Communist" who "actively collaborated" with America's enemies. She was dubbed a "traitor" and "un-American," and described as "American hating" on the Web site launched shortly after her vote. A former state legislator announced that she would challenge Lee in the Democratic primary. As one top aide to Lee tells it, even congressional colleagues who might have respected her action were wishing her well in whatever life brought her after her constituents booted her from office.

But anyone assuming the worst doesn't know California's 9th District. Two years ago, George W. Bush barely edged out Ralph Nader in the presidential election, and Al Gore bested both men by more than a 6-to-1 margin. Lee, 55, is one of the more left-leaning members of the House of Representatives, a dependable vote on a long list of issues--from the environment to civil rights to civil liberties--dear to the average East Bay resident.

On the Saturday before the March primary, I joined Lee, who was dressed casually in tennis shoes and stretch pants, as she walked a precinct. To be sure, her campaign had sent her to walk friendly precincts, but I was figuring that she'd be forced to defend her vote at least occasionally in face-to-face encounters with constituents. She never had a chance. Although she was met by indifference at a few doors, Lee was frequently greeted as if she were a returning hero.

The Neil Young-listening gardener, who had walked over to vigorously shake Lee's hand and express admiration, was typical. The congresswoman, who wore a jewel-encrusted American flag pinned to her jacket, heard plenty of "thank yous" and lots of "good lucks" and even received a few spontaneous hugs from appreciative constituents.

If she had been running for reelection virtually anywhere else in America, Barbara Lee would have been a certain loser. But the central question in the Lee campaign in the days leading up to the primary was whether she'd win with a small but comfortable majority or garner the same 85% share of the vote she had received two years earlier.

Any exploration of Lee's popularity among the people of San Francisco's East Bay must begin on that fateful day in September, a moment Lee recalls with an undercurrent of resentment. "There were many members [of Congress] voicing many of the same concerns that I was voicing that day," Lee says. "Calling for restraint. Calling for more debate before rushing into anything. Not wanting to see any more innocent lives lost. And not wanting to give such broad authority to the president." Listening to the debate, it never dawned on her that she might be the only member of the House to vote no.

Colleagues tried persuading her to change her mind before the voting closed, but she refused. The devoutly religious Lee, a practicing Baptist whose father had been a career Army man, believed she was right. She received so many death threats in the days following her vote that the Capitol police assigned around-the-clock plainclothes officers to guard her.

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