Uphill Bid to Oust Lone Dissenter
For months, Rep. Barbara Lee has traveled under armed guard, a target of wrath ever since she cast the lone vote in Congress that opposed giving President Bush the authority to respond militarily to the Sept. 11 attacks.
But here at home, in the liberal bastions of Oakland and Berkeley, it is Lee’s opponent in the Democratic primary, former Assemblywoman Audie Bock, who is under siege.
Democrats call her an opportunist. Old allies from her days in the Green Party call her a traitor. Polls give her little chance of unseating Lee in the March primary, even though most voters say they back the war in Afghanistan.
Bock is unfazed. Two and a half years ago, she overcame similarly steep odds to become the highest elected Green Party leader in the land.
Now, after a brief stint in the Legislature and a change in party registration, the 56-year-old Bock has returned to the role of protest candidate. Only this time she has wrapped herself in the flag, hoping to stir a backlash over Lee’s dovish stance.
It is an improbable undertaking for the dedicated leftist, who pilots a small, hybrid gas-electric car with a bumper sticker opposing capital punishment and asking: “Would Jesus pull the switch?”
And yet, tooling to a recent endorsement interview with the local Sierra Club chapter, Bock pronounced herself both pleased and comfortable with the support she has received from conservatives and others disgusted with Lee.
“I’m comfortable with it, because for me it’s so clear-cut,” said Bock, who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam and wept at the start of the Persian Gulf War. “The major, major issue here is: The U.S. was attacked.”
Bock’s challenge is the only one of its kind in the nation. After all, Lee was the sole lawmaker out of 535 to oppose President Bush’s authority to wage war.
“Around the country there is virtual bipartisan unanimity on the righteousness of the cause,” said Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “The Democrats have pretty much made an unspoken pact [that] they’re going to set the war aside and focus on domestic differences with Republicans.”
But attitudes are different here on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and the scene of some of the most virulent antiwar protests of the Vietnam era.
For years, the region was represented by Berkeley’s Ronald V. Dellums, who was elected to Congress in 1970 as a peace candidate and, ironically, retired nearly 30 years later as the respected chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. His successor, Lee, is a former staffer who shares Dellums’ support for Third World causes and skepticism toward the Pentagon.
In 1998, she was one of just five House members to oppose the bombing of Iraq. The next year, she cast the one congressional vote against bombing Yugoslavia in the Kosovo conflict.
“I’ve said over and over I’m not a pacifist,” Lee said in an interview. Speaking of Sept. 11, she added, “I firmly believe that we need to bring the perpetrators of this horrific tragedy to justice.”
But in her view, the resolution that Congress passed on Sept. 14 was a blank check that gave Bush dangerously open-ended authority. Events since have done nothing to change her mind.
Critics are appalled, calling Lee un-American, a traitor--and worse. Most of them, however, don’t live around here.
An October poll conducted by UC Berkeley and the Contra Costa Times showed that two-thirds of those surveyed approved of Lee’s job performance, even though more than half disagreed with her vote. Roughly four in 10 said they were more likely to support her reelection as a result of her stance; 18% were less likely.
“People said, ‘Look, we had some concerns at the time and Barbara Lee expressed those concerns,’ ” said Bruce Cain, director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
In fact, support for the war stood at 54% in the survey, compared with 89% nationally. Bush’s approval ratings were a middling 47%, in contrast to his record 90% approval in nationwide surveys.
For many here, Lee has become a kind of folk hero, commended by the Berkeley City Council, celebrated at an Oakland rally and praised even by those who strongly disagreed with her vote.
One of them is Jim Chanin, who has a daughter living about a mile and a half from the World Trade Center.
“I respect her integrity to stand up to everybody in Congress the way she did because she believed in something,” said Chanin, a longtime activist in the woodsy Oakland hills. “I think that’s refreshing in a politician.”
Chanin saw the same virtues in Audie Bock when she first ran for the Assembly in 1999. Despite huge disadvantages in money and party registration, she squeaked by Oakland’s Democratic ex-mayor to score one of the most stunning political upsets in California in years.
Like many, though, Chanin soured on Bock when she quit the Green Party a few months later, switching her registration to independent. Bock hoped that the change would boost her reelection chances in November 2000; she lost anyway.
On her last day in office, she changed her registration again, this time to the Democratic Party.
Then on Sept. 11, Bock sat in front of her television set and watched as the second jetliner smashed into the trade center. A few days later, she heard news accounts of Lee’s controversial House vote.
She called the congresswoman’s home to offer congratulations; Bock now says she misunderstood the resolution. Her support turned to outrage, she said, when she read the measure along with Lee’s speech on the House floor.
The congresswoman had cited a prayer service at the National Cathedral: “One of the clergy members said that as we act, we should not become the evil that we deplore,” Lee said. “And at that moment, I knew what I had to do.”
Bock declared that comment “way out of line. . . . I don’t think you talk about your government that way when your country is attacked.”
If she counted on a groundswell of support from equally indignant voters, however, it has yet to materialize.
Bock brandishes a sheaf of supportive e-mails from around the country. But when she turned in her nominating petitions last week, there were just 79 signatures from the 9th District--a tiny fraction of the 3,000 she would have needed to avoid paying the $1,400 filing fee.
For now, she conceded, her campaign is just “me, my cell phone and my running shoes.”
Bock is undaunted, though, having trod this path before.
“I got feet,” she said. “I am grass roots.”