When Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley lost her bid to be the first woman to represent the commonwealth in the United States Senate, it was a blow to many who hoped to see the “Kennedy Seat” remain in Democratic hands indefinitely.
But it was a special disappointment for Coakley campaign co-chair and personal friend Barbara Lee.
Lee, 64, has for more than a decade dedicated much of her time and personal fortune to the goal of getting women elected. Talk to almost any woman in public office locally and to many nationally, and the story is the same.
“She just was always there, with advice, with resources; she raised money for me. The day of the primary … Barbara Lee spent the day phone-banking for me,” recalled Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, who met Lee shortly before beginning her first campaign.
“And she was constantly talking me up to everyone she knew,” Cabral added, “in some cases raising money and in some cases just making introductions and getting my name out there. She’s very much a putting-her-money-where-her-mouth-is kind of person.”
Besides Cabral and Coakley, Lee has supported local women leaders including state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, state Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry and Willie Mae Allen, Boston At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and many others. Nationally, she has supported Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and dozens more.
In 2008, Lee was a top fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign but joined with Clinton in throwing her support behind Barack Obama when he became the presumptive Democratic nominee. That was another close race, with another disappointing outcome for Lee’s candidate, but speaking about it in a phone interview last week, Lee was characteristically upbeat.
“I think what is so amazing is that Hillary winning more than 18 million votes and winning all of those primaries in so many states, including Massachusetts, is really a monumental change,” she said. “I think that women are making monumental change incrementally. And so many people rallied around Hillary, and what I have found is that Americans can now envision a woman president.”
As Coakley campaign co-chair, Lee says she’s helped make some strategic decisions and has been very involved in fundraising and get-out-the-vote activities. She has sent emails to her broad network of contacts and has made calls to voters at Coakley phone-banks. On Election Day, she said, she planned to knock on doors and speak one-on-one with voters about Coakley.
“I am proud to do the hard work along with everybody else, and I think that it keeps me in touch with what’s happening on the ground,” she said. “I deeply believe in the grassroots organization of every campaign.”
Encouraged by Lee to run for office after their first meeting, recently inaugurated Boston At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley can attest to that.
“A lot of people talk about her formidable fundraising,” Pressley said, “but I have to say that not only did she invest in my campaign and encourage other people to do the same, she also wore out a lot of shoe leather. Barbara Lee worked a poll for me, she held a sign for me, she passed out literature and recruited her staff and her networks to do the same.”
State Rep. Willie Mae Allen ran unsuccessfully for Boston City Council twice in the 1980s but won the Sixth Suffolk District in 2006 and 2008 with Lee’s support. “I think that Barbara Lee doesn’t look and say, ‘This is a poor woman, and I’m going to help her,’ or, ‘This is a woman of color, and I’m going to help her,’” Allen said. “I think she looks at, ‘These are women who are trying to get out there and represent us, and we must get behind this woman.’”
In the past, Lee has supported female candidates from both parties, but she no longer gives her personal backing to Republicans, though her foundation remains bipartisan. In 2006, she maintained a neutral stance in the race between Democrat Deval Patrick and Republican Kerry Healey.
Lee also prefers to remain neutral in races between two Democratic women, but when her former fundraising coordinator Sonia Chang-Díaz challenged state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson in 2006 and again in 2008, Lee, who had previously been a Wilkerson supporter, kept a promise she had made to support Chang-Díaz.
When Chang-Díaz defeated Wilkerson in the primary and again in the general election, Wilkerson and some of her supporters accused Lee of trying to buy the election, though Wilkerson actually spent more on her campaign.
Lee dismissed any accusations of trying to buy elections. “Candidates win elections because of their own steam and because of their own efforts,” she said.
Cabral agreed that the criticism of Lee was unfair. “The fact that she was supporting Sonia shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum,” she said. “She was very supportive of Sen. Wilkerson for several years and had maxed out her contributions to Sen. Wilkerson and had been openly supportive of her. So it wasn’t that she was shunning Dianne Wilkerson; she was encouraging another woman to get involved in politics, and one with whom she had a personal friendship.”
Lee said she has always taken inspiration from her grandmother, Minnie Greenberg, who told her stories about her experiences as a young woman watching women suffragists marching on Fifth Avenue in New York City to demand the right to vote.
“She was a young mother when women finally got to vote for the first time in 1920 — literally my mother was a newborn at that time,” Lee recalled. “My grandmother went to the polls for the first time very excited and also scared about doing it. And then she never missed an election from then until the end of her life at the good old age of 96.”
Lee grew up middle-class in West Orange, N.J., where she was her high school class treasurer, and went on to Simmons College. Shortly after graduation, she married Thomas Lee, who would make a fortune through leveraged buyouts of companies including Snapple and Ghirardelli Chocolate. She worked as a teacher and as a social worker and raised their two sons Zach, now 38, and Robbie, 28.
When the Lees divorced in 1995 after 27 years of marriage, Forbes magazine estimated that she walked away with $200 million, one of the largest settlements in Massachusetts history. After the divorce, she became increasingly involved in politics and philanthropy.
“I like to say that art is my passion and women in politics is my mission,” Lee said, and indeed her impact in the local arts scene rivals her impact in politics. A longtime supporter of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Lee donated $5 million, the largest donation in the museum’s history, toward the construction of its current waterfront site.
Lee has also served on the board of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Brandeis University. It was her involvement with Brandeis that led to Lee’s introduction to the concept of strategic philanthropy, which she described in a 2009 op-ed article as using “focused giving to promote systemic social change …”
Determined to use her philanthropy to empower women, in 1998 she partnered with Marie Wilson, then-president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Laura Liswood, then at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to create the White House Project, an effort to encourage and prepare more women to run for office with the ultimate goal of getting a woman elected president.
In 1999, she established the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. Based in Harvard Square, the foundation works to support both women in politics and contemporary art. It has produced a series of guidebooks for women seeking public office, including “Cracking the Code: Political Intelligence for Women Running for Governor” and “Positioning Women to Win: New Strategies for Turning Gender Stereotypes into Competitive Advantages.”
With the Coakley campaign now behind her, Lee will now move on to the next election, and the next one, and the next one. Her foundation has identified governors’ mansions as likely the best stepping stone for a woman to reach the White House, and this is an election year for many governors around the country.
“I’m excited to see that there are many, many women running for primaries for governor around the country,” she said, “and I’m hoping that it will be a banner year.”
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation supports progressive initiatives in two program areas: women in politics and the contemporary arts. Learn more here: www.barbaraleefoundation.org/
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