News Column

Politician's Pursuit of Justice Has Roots in El Paso

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Barbara Jean Lee was born in El Paso at a time when the city was known for its entrenched discrimination against blacks and Hispanics.

When Lee's mother, Mildred, began having labor pains, she had a hard time trying to get Hotel Dieu hospital to admit her because she was black. The Daughters of Charity had founded the hospital, but by then the premier health facility was turning away black-skinned patients.

Her mother needed a cesarean section, and given her worsening condition and the protests of relatives, the hospital was forced to admit her to its emergency room. Instead of a C-section, doctors used forceps to pull Barbara Lee through the birth canal, a procedure that nearly killed the mother and daughter.

That was the world Lee was born into in 1946.

"I came out fighting," Lee said. "Because of racism, my mother almost died and I almost didn't get born. I lived in El Paso when there was a lot of segregation and discrimination.

"But I also spent my childhood in a very diverse community of Latinos, whites and blacks. Those early years created in me a passion for justice and equality for everyone."

Today, Lee, 65, is one of the most prominent lawmakers in the U.S. Congress. She's had a brilliant career in politics, first as a state representative and state senator in California, and then as a U.S. representative for the state's 9th Congressional District, which includes Berkeley and Oakland.

Lee will be the featured speaker today at the Black El Paso Democrats

Black History Month celebration at the Wyndham Airport Hotel.

"I was impressed when I met her two years ago," said Don Williams, chairman of Black El Paso Democrats. "She acknowledges where she came from and what it took for her to get where she is today. She epitomizes the Democratic Party's platform."

Lee's list of accolades appears endless: the National Association of People with AIDS Positive Leadership Award, National Parks Service Association Award, Northern California Peace Alliance Legislative Peace Builder of the Year, National Urban League Congressional Leadership Award, Physicians for Human Rights Award at the Mexico International AIDS Conference, and many more.

She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was recognized as a Woman of Peace by the Global Exchange Human Rights Awards in 2003, along with Bianca Jagger.

Rowman & Littlefield published Lee's book, "Renegade for Peace & Justice" in 2008, first as a hardcover book and later as a paperback.

"I've always wanted to see the inside of the Plaza Theatre in El Paso," Lee said. "But, when I was young, blacks were not allowed to go in. I couldn't understand then why things were that way when I had friends from all backgrounds."

Lee attended St. Joseph's Elementary School, where she said she received a good education. She also took music and piano lessons from Drusilla Nixon, wife of Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, an activist doctor who successfully helped to abolish the all-white Demo cratic Party primary in Texas.

"I remember having to take logic and diagramming sentences. It was hard at the time, but I learned a lot and it served me well," Lee said. "I was on the drill team and was very active in all sorts of school activities."

Her father, who was an Army officer stationed at Fort Bliss, her mother and two sisters lived in a home on Yandell Drive in Central El Paso.

"I remember watching the tumbleweeds roll by, the downpours when it rained, and the dust storms during the windy season," Lee said. "I miss the desert and the sunshine. I also remember that we used to get a lot of pollution from the (Asarco) smelter, and that people were getting sick from it."

After Lee's family moved to California, she finished high school there. She was a single mother with two sons when she attended Mills College. Then she received a master's degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley.

She got involved in politics in the 1970s when she volunteered for the Black Panther Party Community Learning Center in Oakland. The region was a hotbed of activism, which helped propel the advancement of minorities. She helped with Bobby Seale's 1973 bid for mayor of Oakland. Later, she was a staffer for U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums.

Although she's considered a staunch liberal Democrat, she does not always side with the party's leadership or with President Barack Obama on policy issues.

She became known internationally for casting the sole vote in Congress against the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorism Resolution, which authorized the president to use military force against terrorism. She said it was the moment in time that defined her politically

"I am not soft on terrorism at all," Lee said.

"I support a tough national security policy and the budget for it. What I did not agree with was to give the president, any president, broad powers to wage war anywhere and against anyone without first developing the basis for such warfare. It goes against every democratic principle I stand for. Only Congress can wage war. Time has proved me right."

After that vote, which some viewed as political suicide, critics called Lee unpatriotic, and her family received death threats.

Yet since she was first elected to Congress in 1998, her constituents have kept returning her to office with landslide victories. She also received the Mario Cuomo Act of Courage Award.

She was also among the House members who voted not to count the controversial electoral vote from Ohio in the 2004 presidential election between then President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes said he, Lee and others later voted against the 2002 resolution to go to war in Iraq.

"I admire her bold leadership, and together we have cast critical votes, including our vote against the war in Iraq," Reyes said.

"Barbara Lee has deep roots in our community, and I am glad to welcome her this weekend to West Texas.ΓΕ 

Other members of the House said Lee is a tireless advocate for the poor, for women and for minorities. She serves on many legislative caucuses that reflect those interests. Lee is also on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations.

She agreed that the issues she cares most about have not changed.

"We need to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and we definitely need to the Dream Act," which provides a path to citizenship through education or military service for some undocumented immigrants who entered the country at a young age, Lee said. "Our most pressing needs for today is for jobs and economic opportunity for everyone. We need to allocate our resources in the most proper way that we can."

True to form, Lee's official House website calls for "reigniting the American dream" in 2012.

"I will continue to fight for the 99 percent to have a voice in Congress. The promise of America is for all, not just some," according to her online message.

Former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of Texas, and a candidate again for Congress, said, "Barbara Lee has overcome great adversity and discrimination to become a champion for social justice and a committed voice for peace. Few Americans can speak with such authority on reigniting the American Dream.

"As Black History Month draws to a close, we are privileged to have an opportunity to hear from a leader who is shaping that proud history through her dedicated service."