CONGRESSWOMAN BARBARA LEE gives aglowing review of Mayor Ron Dellums’ historyand career at the mayoral inauguration at theParamount Theater earlier
CONGRESSWOMAN BARBARA LEE gives a glowing review of Mayor Ron Dellums' history and career at the mayoral inauguration at the Paramount Theater earlier this month. (Laura A. Oda - Staff)
Editor's note: This is the first of an occasional series highlighting the lives of your neighbors.

Some of them you know. Some of them you thought you knew. Mostly, though, you'll meet neighbors you've never met but will be glad you did.

Veteran writer Dave Newhouse long has enthralled readers with his profiles of sports figures in the Tribune sports pages. Now, Dave expands his search for unsung heroes, role models and simple folks you really ought to get to know. And he finds them, not in the limelight or in the spotlight, but working quietly and diligently to make this city and the Bay Area a better place to live.

IT'S A QUESTION we should all ask ourselves: Do we have the courage and conviction to stand up for what we believe in, even if everyone around us opposes our position?

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, tested her own character in 2001. In the emotional aftermath of 9/11, she cast the only "no" vote atop Capitol Hill regarding the United States' invasion of Afghanistan.

That made the vote a staggering 518-1 against Lee, not to mention the overwhelming public opinion in a revenge-minded America stacked against her.

Facing such tsunami-like opposition, she held strong. But where did she find the backbone to pilot her lonely raft through such stormy seas?

"When I wanted to be cheerleader at San Fernando High School California in 1962, there had never been a black cheerleader there," Lee recalled in an interview earlier this month at the West Oakland Senior Center.

"The rules were such that they perpetuated themselves — only a selected body could vote, and only white girls could win. I thought I was as good as anyone else, so I went to other students and the NAACP and said, 'Look, these rules are wrong. They're keeping us all from being cheerleaders.'

"So we shattered those rules by opening up the democratic process. I got to compete and I became the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High School."

Her family expected nothing less from this Democratic dynamo.

"My grandfather was a very active member of many civil rights groups in El Paso, Texas," she said. "When I started school, it was segregated. My father was a career Army lieutenant colonel. We were denied being able to go to theaters with him. We'd try to eat in a restaurant and they'd say, 'We don't serve ...' and they'd use the 'n' word. And my dad was in his uniform."

But the feisty Barbara Lee first put up her dukes at birth.

"My mother told me when I was born, she wasn't admitted at the hospital in El Paso because she was black," Lee said. "My mother was supposed to have a C-section and didn't. This is how I came into the world, fighting to live, to survive.

"These early experiences I can remember very vividly. 'Coloreds only' water fountains. I can remember my mother, father and grandfather saying, 'We're not going to tolerate this. We're going to fight against it, and stand strong and challenge it.' And they did at every level."

Lee, 60, whose congressional territory stretches from Oakland and Berkeley to Castro Valley, but not Alameda, wasn't only courageous after

9/11. She was farsighted in her opposition to war in the Middle East. The latest Gallup Poll shows that 56 percent of Americans believe the Iraq War was a mistake.

They say Barbara Lee was right.

But how did her Washington colleagues perceive her in 2001 — as a pariah, a traitor, looking at her with impeachable eyes?

"Many members of Congress came up to me and said, 'I disagree with you,'" she said of that time, "but not one castigated me. Who knows what they said behind my back? But even the most right-wing members that I'm in total disagreement with shook my hand and said they respected my position.

"You know, the people at that point weren't sure how to respond after 9/11. But you can't wage war to stop war. You can't give the president a blank check. Congress now understands that we have to take a broader perspective on all these issues and what ultimately leads to peace."

Lee is both combative and cerebral. She received a bachelor's degree from Mills College, a master's from the University of California, Berkeley, then served on the staff of Ron Dellums, the congressman turned Oakland mayor. Lee paid her dues as a California senator and assemblywoman before being elected to Congress in 1998. 

Whether you're politically liberal, like Lee, or conservative, you have to admire her amazing resolve in the face of abject adversity.

"Trust who you are, trust your instincts," she advised. "Follow your heart and your conscience, because 99.9 percent of the time that's the right decision."

Dave Newhouse's column will appear Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, usually in the Metro section. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or send an e-mail to dnewhouse@angnewspapers.com