Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Vision: Public Service

BOND: Now, I'm guessing you're going to say Shirley Chisholm in answer to this question, but what made you think about public service as a career?

LEE: No, it wasn't Shirley Chisholm. It was — I never thought about it as a career.

BOND: Well, as your life's work. Your life's work.

LEE: You know. It just sort of evolved. I worked for Ron for 11 years and after working for Ron Dellums, it's all downhill. You just don't go anywhere else. I actually left Ron's staff, took a leave of absence, and set up a small business.

BOND: Yes. What was that business?

LEE: This was primarily facilities management, administrative support services. I actually was a Teamster contractor. I had at one point four hundred fifty, five hundred employees in Oakland, very low-key but it was a very good business and I wanted to see if I could employ people and provide good-paying jobs and I was able to do that with my family for about eleven years. And so after I left Ron's staff, I continued to be involved politically, but I had no intentions of running for public office. It was like nowhere on my radar.

What happened was Elihu Harris decided — he was in the California legislature — and he decided he was going to run for mayor. And there was another person who was really very close to me and involved with guiding me and a mentor, Supervisor John George in Oakland, California. John just kept calling me and kept saying — he had dinner with myself and two other African American women, said, "You guys gotta surface. You've been behind the scenes. You're progressive. You know what's happening. You're a woman. You're black. Why don't you think about running for office?" I said, "John, please. Not me, you know, I've worked for Ron. He's the greatest. How do you run for anything?" You know, and I was a little shy. I'm still a little shy.

BOND: Hard to believe.

LEE: I am, and so I said, "I've been behind the scenes, no, no, no." The week John George died it was really unbelievable. I saw him. I'll never forget this. I was driving down Webster Street in Oakland. John was crossing the street and he stopped in the middle of the street and he looked at me. He says, "Barbara, I'm going to tell you I need to run for the Assembly since Elihu is running for Mayor. Now, you've got to make your mind up. You've got to do it. You must do it. It's because we need you," and he knew I was very active with the Rainbow Coalition. He said, "You've got to do this. As a woman, it's your responsibility." I said, "John, no, no, no." That Saturday, John died. John George died and people knew — evidently he'd told people that he was trying to encourage me to run — and it was kind of, it snowballed from that, that I made the decision to run for the California Assembly. And then when I told Ron, he says, "Oh, my God, not you," and then Ron told me, he says, "You know, the more I think about it, who else?" And so I started trying to figure out how to do all this, but it wasn't that I had planned to run for public office. Then I called Congresswoman Chisholm, talked to her. She said, "Oh, yes, whatever I need to do to help you, I will." And I started calling people up to kind of see what they thought. Me? I've never run for anything. "Yes, Barbara, you've got to do it." And so it was — I won't say it was a draft effort, but it was something I did. I sort of fell into it and evolved.

BOND: But is it fair to say that the life you'd lived up to then was at least unconscious preparation for this?

LEE: It was unconscious, for sure.

BOND: But it was preparation for this?

LEE: It was preparation. As you look back, you never know and as a person of faith, you know, you have to kind of move by faith and walk by faith and kind of trust in the Lord and that's how my life has been. I never have planned it, but unconsciously, yeah, I guess this is part of the plan.