The year was 2004. Barbara Lee found herself standing next to a little-known lawyer named Maura Healey, waiting to get into a Democratic unity event in Washington following John Kerry’s bruising loss to George W. Bush.
The two women chatted for close to an hour before they were interrupted by Hillary Clinton, who spotted Lee in the line and greeted her with a hug. Lee introduced Healey and told Clinton: “You’ve got to meet this person. She’s going to be a rising star.”
For 25 years, Lee has regaled us with tales that show her uncanny ability to spot female political talent. The petite Cambridge philanthropist has transformed the political landscape by recruiting women to run and helping them win by providing money, advice, research, and the jolt of courage they sometimes need to enter the fray.
By her count, Lee has helped elect more than 200 women in 37 states — including 8 sitting governors, 13 sitting US Senators, 29 sitting House members, and one vice president. Now at 78, Lee plans to wind down her foundation and political office by the end of 2024 and step back from the role that suited her so well: queenmaker.
Here in Massachusetts, it’s hard to overstate Lee’s legacy. It’s no accident that women have shattered ceilings from Beacon Hill to City Hall to the halls of Congress. Lee championed so many trailblazers before they became household names: Healey, Mayor Michelle Wu, Senator Elizabeth Warren, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, Attorney General Andrea Campbell, and US Representative Katherine Clark.
In an interview, Healey told me she remembers that fateful encounter with Lee and shaking Clinton’s hand for the first time. Healey knew who Lee was, but she was caught off guard by her unsolicited advice: “You should run. You will run.”
Healey, then a junior partner at the law firm WilmerHale, laughed off the suggestion. “That’s crazy,” she recalled telling Lee.
A decade later, Healey would launch an improbable campaign for state attorney general, trouncing a Democratic favorite, former state Senator Warren Tolman. Eight years after that, Healey became the first woman and first openly-gay candidate elected governor of Massachusetts.
“Barbara Lee, for me and so many women, has been a critical force in helping us train around the nuts and bolts of running, and what it takes to serve and what it takes to govern,” Healey said. “For that, I am grateful, and it’s for those reasons Barbara’s Lee reach is just so deep.”
Lee, a 5-foot-2-inch ball of energy, launched her own improbable foray into politics after her high-profile divorce in 1996 from leveraged-buyout king Thomas H. Lee. The divorce left Lee, a former teacher and social worker, with hundreds of millions of dollars. She began asking friends what she should do with her fortune.
Someone suggested rather whimsically: Elect the first woman president.
Lee took it to heart. In 1998, she helped start The White House Project, a public awareness campaign featuring a ballot with a slate of women who could run for president, including then-New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey.
But something didn’t feel right to Lee. The path to the Oval Office usually starts on lower political rungs. She needed women to be governors and members of Congress first.
That same year she launched the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and Barbara Lee Political Office. The nonpartisan foundation provides data and research to show women how they could run and win, while the political office writes checks to support pro-choice Democratic women.
About two decades ago, Lee ran into Ayanna Pressley, then an aide to Kerry, at the Harvard Kennedy School. They had met over over the years, but this time Lee slipped Pressley a handwritten note: “You should run for office one day, and I will write your first check.”
Pressley kept the note for some time, and finally took Lee up on her offer in 2009, winning her Boston City Council race. Then in 2018, with Lee’s support, Pressley secured her seat in Congress by upsetting a 10-term incumbent, Michael Capuano, in the Democratic primary.
Pressley said Lee wasn’t the first person to suggest she seek office. But Lee helped Pressley overcome an obstacle that researchers say is a key contributor to the political gender gap: Women are far more reluctant to run than men.
“I’m just tremendously grateful,” said Pressley. “I know that she passed that same note to many women throughout the years who did not see themselves as leaders, who did not believe they have the profile, the pedigree, the credentials, the worthiness to run.”
Lee has made nearly $2 million in direct contributions to more than 400 woman candidates, according to her office. She also has given money to federal and state parties, as well as political action committees. Most notably, she was one of Clinton’s biggest supporters in the 2016 presidential campaign, contributing more than $2 million to PACs and groups that supported Clinton’s candidacy.
Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016 was perhaps Lee’s biggest disappointment. She recalled election night at the Javits Center in Manhattan, when expectations of making history were dashed and a night of celebration became one of sorrow.
The next day, as Lee drove back to Boston, her cellphone rang off the hook. People were checking in because they worried Lee felt the loss almost as keenly as Clinton.
“That was a tough night for everybody,” said Lee. “A lot of us really thought that she was going to pull it off.”
But for Lee, learning from losses can be as important as notching wins. She picked up the phone a couple days after Katherine Clark lost her first state Senate race in 2004 to say: “What’s next?”
It was the last thing Clark wanted to hear after a grueling campaign, but it proved a turning point.
“That’s really the reason that I am serving in Congress and in leadership today,” said Clark, who ran again and won the state Senate seat. “She just presented it as a fact that I would continue to run and continue to find ways to serve our community, and she wanted to know what the plan was.... That reframing was so profound.”
From there, the Revere Democrat won the 2013 special election to replace US Representative Ed Markey, who had moved up to the Senate. Today Clark is the Democratic whip, the second most powerful Democrat in the House and only the second woman to serve in that role. The other was Nancy Pelosi, who would become the first woman to serve as speaker of the House.
When I learned a few weeks ago that Lee planned to retire to spend more time with her three grandchildren, I was crushed. There’s unfinished business. We still don’t have a Madame President.
But then Clark reminded me that Lee has laid the groundwork for that to happen.
“Whoever she is, she is in the pipeline today,” said Clark. “She’s going to make it all the way to the Oval Office, really standing on the shoulders of Barbara Lee and the incredible body of work that she has put together and in really changing expectations for women candidates.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.