Barbara Lee has far less money than other California Senate candidates. Here’s why you shouldn’t count her out

Rep. Barbara Lee. D-Oakland, has financial support from a network of donors she helped build and from other progressives to raise enough money to run a viable campaign for the Senate.

Rep. Barbara Lee. D-Oakland, has financial support from a network of donors she helped build and from other progressives to raise enough money to run a viable campaign for the Senate.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

No, you weren’t going nuts. It was weird — in real-world terms — for Orange County Rep. Katie Porter to launch her U.S. Senate campaign 21 months before Election Day 2024, and just days after she was sworn in for her third term in the House.

But it wasn’t weird in the political world. Insiders predict that it will take $20 million to compete in the California primary, which probably will be in March 2024. It costs roughly $4 million a week to air TV ads statewide. The Los Angeles market alone could run a candidate $2 million.

Porter has $7.7 million cash on hand, according to her latest federal campaign finance report. She raised $25 million last year but had to drain much of that in an unexpectedly tough House race in a redrawn, more GOP district.

Burbank Rep. Adam Schiff, who is also likely to join the race, has nearly $21 million on hand since he didn’t face a strong challenger last year. So Porter launched her bid early to give her a chance to catch up. So far, so good: Porter raised $1.3 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign.

Which brings us to Rep. Barbara Lee, who The Chronicle confirmed last week is also planning to run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. Lee, who has represented the East Bay since 1990 in the Legislature and in the House, has $54,940. Or enough to cover Los Angeles in yard signs. Or maybe just half of it.

That gap was an eye-opener for anyone who would like to see a Black woman in the Senate. Right now there are none. There have only been two — ever. Only 11 Black lawmakers have served in the Senate, with three — Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Tim Scott, R-S.C. and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. — currently in office.

While there are a record 27 Black women in the House this year, no state has ever elected a Black woman as governor.

One reason for the dearth of Black public officials, as Lee told to me during a 2020 appearance on The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast, is that it is hard even for her — an icon in progressive circles — to raise money.

“For me to raise money, being a Black woman progressive, is 10 times harder than it is for anybody else,” Lee told me. “And that’s, again, part of this whole political system in this country and how people are viewed.”

Lee is the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In the 2021 documentary “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” younger members of Congress, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., praised Lee as a role model.

Lee said fundraising isn’t just tough for her.

“You can check with all people of color in Congress,” Lee told me. “It takes a heck of a lot more to raise money, to be able to be competitive.”

The are many reasons for that. When candidates decide they want to run for office, they will typically start by tapping into a network of friends and family.

Start with how the median white household had $188,200 in wealth — nearly eight times that of the typical Black household ($24,100), according to a 2020 Brookings Institution study. Whites “are five times more likely than Blacks to receive large gifts or inheritances,” according to the Urban Institute think tank.

“That certainly rings true with other candidates and campaigns that I’ve worked with,” said Aimee Allison, an Oakland resident and founder of She the People, which advocates for Black women in politics. “It is harder because of the historical reasons. The assumption that a lot of political donors have that are based on old calculations about who can actually secure that seat.”

Plus, fundraising has never been Lee’s emphasis because she hasn’t had to do much of it to defend her East Bay House seat. She has won at least 81% of the vote in all of her re-election campaigns going back to 1998. She has spent much of her fundraising time redirecting funds to other members of Congress.

In 2020, she became the honorary chair of Representation Matters, a volunteer network of more than 1,000 donors and activists focused on helping women of color run for office. Formed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, it has raised more than $2 million for federal and state candidates, co-founder Dale Schroedel told me.

Lee is the group’s rainmaker.

“Instead of raising money for herself and socking it away in a committee, she’s been raising that money and she’s been investing it in other talent,” said Kimberly Ellis, a longtime Lee supporter who is the former executive director of Emerge California, a training program for aspiring female political candidates. “That just sort of speaks to her character and integrity and who she is, as a human, much less as an elected official. She’s someone who believes in lifting (others up) as she climbs.”

Schroedel believes that volunteer donor network will help Lee compete in the Senate race.

“I absolutely believe she can be competitive. I have no doubts about it,” Schroedel said.

Lateefah Simon, a BART board member who is in touch with deep-pocketed donors nationally through her work with several foundations, said, “I have no doubt that local and national donors will step up and support her bid.”

What Lee has “that will mitigate — or at least be as valuable as having money in the bank — will be her name recognition, endorsements and her ability to build a multiracial voting bloc of Black, Asian, Latino and white voters statewide,” Allison said.

What also may help Lee is that California voters have a long history of shrugging off the candidate with the biggest wallet in big races.

Remember Republican Meg Whitman, who spent $144 million of her own money on her 2010 gubernatorial run and was drubbed by Jerry Brown? Or airline executive Al Checchi, who spent $40 million to get just 12% of the vote in losing to Gray Davis in the 1998 Democratic primary?

Last year, billionaire developer Rick Caruso spent $104 million in losing to former Democratic Rep. Karen Bass — a Black woman — in the race to be mayor of Los Angeles. While neither Porter nor Schiff is a self-funding candidate, they will initially have a large fundraising edge over Lee.

Lee’s fans acknowledge that some observers will use how much a candidate has in the bank as a barometer of how strong their campaign is. They say Lee won’t be deterred no matter how much she ultimately raises.

“Black women face so many more challenges just by virtue of existing. And that’s not going to change anytime soon,” Ellis, said. “We also don’t let that stop us from doing anything, including running for offices and winning.”

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: Twitter: @joegarofoli