Rep. Barbara Lee at Jalisco Restaurant in Watsonville on Monday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Rep. Barbara Lee energizes Watsonville during U.S. Senate campaign stop

Touting “a different perspective and lived experiences” from the Democratic candidates who had preceded her in visiting Santa Cruz County, Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee talked about the state’s housing crisis and homelessness and her ability to work across the aisle at an event at Jalisco Restaurant.

Rep. Barbara Lee‘s reputation precedes her. Even on a cool Monday night in Watsonville, chants of “Barbara, Barbara, Barbara!” could be heard from the street before the 77-year-old Oakland congresswoman entered the tented patio behind Jalisco Restaurant.

Around long, narrow tables dotted with bowls of chips and salsa and a free Mexican hot buffet provided by the campaign, the energized crowd of roughly 100 gathered under a web of warm-hued lights to hear Lee pitch Santa Cruz County on why she should be the next U.S. senator from California. If elected to replace the retiring Dianne Feinstein, Lee would become only the third Black woman to serve in the history of the Senate, behind Carol Moseley Braun and Kamala Harris.

“It’s important to recognize that, in this campaign, you have a chance to elect somebody who has a different perspective and lived experiences,” Lee said. “I believe strongly that I have to dismantle and disrupt systems that are discriminatory, and barriers for anyone. You don’t tinker around the edges, you have to go in there and you have to shake things up and you have to build something new that’s just and fair. That’s who I am.”

Locals across the county have often referred to Lee as a “hero” for her stand in 2001 against granting presidential power to use military force against any individual, group or country deemed to have played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The vote on the authorization bill was 98-0 in the Senate, and 420-1 in the House of Representatives. On that island, Lee had to weather a steady stream of hate and accusations of treason. Lee has long criticized the bill as a blank check to wage war and is still working across the aisle to repeal it, she told the crowd Monday, with legislators like ultraconservative Texas Rep. Chip Roy.

Lee is well known for her ideals, but she said success in Congress’ upper house calls for senators to work with people they might disagree with.

“You see, in the Senate, you have to be able to fight for what is right and for people, but you also have to be able to work with people, to deliver for people, to make sure they get the resources,” Lee said. “I worked with George [W.] Bush, even though I was opposed to him, to create the largest response to HIV and AIDS, where we have saved [millions] of lives. That was Barbara Lee and George Bush.”

Rep. Barbara Lee speaks to a room full of supporters Monday in Watsonville.
With Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez behind her, Rep. Barbara Lee speaks to supporters Monday in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lee’s arrival in Watsonville capped off an eight-day stretch that saw all three major Democratic candidates for Senate come through Santa Cruz County. Rep. Katie Porter, from Irvine, spoke before about 175 donors inside the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Santa Cruz on Aug. 20; Burbank Rep. Adam Schiff was the main attraction at the local Democratic Central Committee’s fundraiser at the Santa Cruz home of power couple George Ow Jr. and Gail Michaelis-Ow on Aug. 22. Before Porter’s event, Santa Cruz County had not welcomed a major Democratic senate candidate ahead of the primary since Barbara Boxer came to town in 1992.

Lee’s decision to not only host a free event and provide dinner — in contrast to her opponents — but to also choose Watsonville instead of Santa Cruz only augmented her reputation for civil justice in the eyes of locals, and even won some over.

“I was undecided, but when I heard she was coming to Watsonville, that did it for me,” said District 4 Pajaro Valley Unified School District Trustee Daniel Dodge Jr. “No disrespect to anyone else but she made the effort when everyone else went to Santa Cruz. Any time someone makes an effort to come to Watsonville, I have to support them.”

Lee was the last among the three major candidates to jump into the race, and has remained in third among Democrats in polling and fundraising ahead of the March 5, 2024, primary. As of June 30, the most recent fundraising numbers available, Lee had raised $1.4 million, against Schiff’s $30 million and Porter’s $10.4 million. In a July poll published by the Public Policy Institute of California, Lee stood at 13%, behind Porter’s 19% and Schiff’s 16%. Some locals have called the candidate pool an embarrassment of riches. Whoever wins will replace Feinstein, who, at 90 years old, announced earlier this year that she would retire when her term ends in 2024.

Adding another variable to the race has been Feinstein’s regular absences and health concerns. In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to appoint a Black woman to the Senate if Feinstein could not complete her term.


After a deep dive into her background that included a story about how she worked with the NAACP when she was 15 to organize and integrate her school cheerleading team, Lee got to her issues. She said she supports Medicare for all (“We need to get the profit out of health care.”), wants to cancel student debt and provide free college tuition, and is committed to getting rid of the Senate’s filibuster.

However, she spent a lot of time discussing the state’s housing crisis and homelessness. She vowed to bring a bill to the Senate to open up the federal government’s pursestrings to help with expensive security deposits and down payments that place a barrier between people and a stable living situation.

“I was on welfare myself, and the government then had a program for people like me where, on public assistance, I was able to buy a house,” Lee said.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee speaks to a room full of supporters at Jalisco Restaurant in Watsonville on Monday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Why can’t we do that now? Why can’t we do that for students who can’t even think about buying a house? Right now, we’ve got college students sleeping in their cars. No way. The federal government needs to find ways and there are ways because you know we have plenty of resources.”

Before she took the microphone, I caught a few minutes one-on-one with Lee to talk about her plans for the housing crisis, an issue as severe in Santa Cruz County as anywhere else in the country. Proudly, she categorized her vision around a security deposit fund, putting federal dollars into campus housing and establishing federal land trusts that allow nonprofits to buy and develop properties as “out-of-the-box ideas.” Something, she said, we need.

“The only path in this country to acquire any kind of wealth is through equity in one’s home,” she told me. “I don’t want young people to think they can’t dream that way because otherwise they’ll never be able to do what they want to do. I want young people especially to think about homeownership.”

How do you get them to think about it?

“You do it by talking about ideas and listening to what they want to do,” Lee responded. “Some young people don’t even think about it and I want them to think about it.”

As the crowd began to trickle out of Jalisco’s, I caught Yasmina Porter, a retired dance professor at Cabrillo College and founder of the African Roots Social Club. She said she believes in Lee’s pacifism and moral compass.

“I think Barbara Lee can keep us out of World War III. Americans have not seriously had a war on our shores and we’re not paying attention,” Porter said, then turning to Lee’s work with mentor and predecessor Ron Dellums in pushing to end South African apartheid. “They helped to divest [from South Africa]. She’s changed the world before and I think she will change the world again if we get her in there. I think she’s our greatest hope for saving our planet in terms of environment, in terms of race wars, in terms of war in Russia. She’s our Obi-wan.”

Jeffrey Smedberg, head of the Santa Cruz for Bernie political organization, said voting for Lee was “not a hard sell.” Smedberg is one of those people who immediately points to Lee’s vote against authorizing military force in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been following Barbara Lee for decades,” Smedberg said. “She’s still an activist, still an organizer, and she comes from a very different perspective than most people in Congress and we need that voice.”

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