California Rep. Barbara Lee falls short in bid to become the first black woman in House leadership

Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland said ageism and sexism were at play after she lost her bid to lead the House Democratic Caucus.
Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland said ageism and sexism were at play after she lost her bid to lead the House Democratic Caucus.
(CQ Roll Call)

California Rep. Barbara Lee on Wednesday lost her bid to become the first black woman elected to a House leadership position and the first woman to lead the House Democratic Caucus.

By a vote of 123 to 113, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York won the race to lead the caucus for the next two years. Both are members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

For the record:

8:25 AM, Nov. 29, 2018An earlier version of this article said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries would be the youngest member of the House Democratic leadership. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, elected to become House assistant Democratic leader, is younger.

Several members cast Jeffries, 48, as a promising young leader who could one day become speaker. Lee, 72, said afterward that ageism and sexism were at play in the result.

“I’m a black woman and the institutional barriers are still there, so we just keep fighting,” Lee said.


Jeffries was just elected to a fourth term in Congress and is a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which helps Democrats develop their messaging. His entry into the race for the fifth-highest leadership post was seen by some as bypassing an unwritten rule that members rack up more experience before seeking one of the coveted jobs. Lee had taken a more traditional path of holding successive leadership positions over more than two decades in Washington.

Supporters said Jeffries appealed to members who have been frustrated by how long current House leaders have held power. Jeffries will be one of the youngest members of the House Democratic leadership.

In his nominating speech, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) likened Jeffries to President Obama, who attended Harvard with Vargas.

“He’s as eloquent as Barack. He has that special gift, something that Barack has. I call it lightning in a bottle,” Vargas said after the vote. “This guy could easily be our next speaker, this guy could easily be president of the United States. He’s got the talent.”

Several Democratic members, including Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the most senior African American member in the House leadership, refused to say who they voted for in the secret ballot.

Clyburn would only call the race, which pitted two members of the Congressional Black Caucus against each other, “interesting.”

Lee said she felt “some disappointment only with the institutional barriers that I recognized that were out there during this campaign. I’m really disappointed in that, knowing that was an uphill battle.”

Progressive powerhouse Democracy for America called the results disappointing. “It’s a real missed opportunity to break a glass ceiling for #BlackWomen on Capitol Hill & have an unabashed progressive champion on the House leadership team,” the group said in a tweet.


Jeffries downplayed the idea that ageism or sexism might have played a role.

“I think that it was a friendly contest of ideas, and the members of the House Democratic Caucus worked their will. I look forward to all of us coming together and moving forward on behalf of the American people,” he said after the vote.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said there might have also been a bit of resistance to the idea of having the speaker and caucus chair both from California. Rep. Joe Crowley, the current caucus chairman, is from New York, another major source of Democratic power in the House.

Clyburn is uncontested to become Democratic whip, and Jeffries’ election marks the first time that two black men will serve in top leadership positions at the same time.


Lee, of Oakland, was first elected to Congress in 1998 after nearly a decade in the California Assembly and Senate. She is a former chairwoman of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. She is most widely known for casting the lone vote against the authorization for use of military force in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

That’s why Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) said she had his vote.

“I would vote for Barbara for anything, because to me she is the single profile of courage in this Congress,” Khanna said.

Times Staff Writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this article.


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11:15 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Lee, Jeffries and others.

9 a.m.: This article was updated after the vote.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.