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Councilwoman Barbara Lee gets a hug from Omar Benjamin, the executive director for the Port of Oakland, at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Calif., on Monday January, 14, 2008. Lee hosted a bus tour around the East Bay to highlight the local projects that will receive much needed federal funding this year, including the $50 million that the Port of Oakland will receive. (Alison Yin/Oakland Tribune)
REP. BARBARA LEE carried one simple message all the length of her district Monday: "Earmark" shouldn't be a dirty word.

Lee, D-Oakland, took a bus tour of six sites for which she secured federal dollars during her first year on the influential House Appropriations Committee, a panel holding the federal purse strings.

At each stop, met by small crowds of happy constituents and community leaders, Lee said there'd be more money for local projects if so much weren't spent on the U.S. occupation of Iraq and on President Bush's tax cuts for the rich.

But while the pie is smaller, California's 9th Congressional District still deserves a fair slice, she said, reiterating at each stop that she's "going to try to find every nickel, every dollar I can to bring home."

And that's a message local leaders love to hear.

At Oakland's McClymonds High School, Oakland Unified School District board member Greg Hodge and others touted $478,000 Lee helped secure for the McClymonds Youth Center; Port of Oakland executive director Omar Benjamin lauded the lawmaker for helping to dig up more than $49.5 million for harbor-dredging projects; and Peralta Community College District Chancellor Elihu Harris praised almost $287,000 Lee helped get to relocate the district's nursing school to Alameda County's Highland Hospital and $94,000 more for Meritt College's Center for Public Safety.


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Elsewhere in Oakland, Lee also helped reel in millions more for causes including the Chabot Space & Science Center; violence prevention programs; records integration at Children's Hospital Oakland and Allen Temple Baptist Church's efforts to help ex-cons find and keep jobs.

Outside Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Mayor Tom Bates and other local officials, a crowd of giggling kids, and well-known chef Alice Waters thanked Lee for bringing home almost $239,000 worth of bacon for the Chez Panisse Foundation's School Lunch Initiative — upgrading not only Berkeley students' nutrition, but their whole relationship with food. "It'samazing to have federal dollars for this project," Waters said, standing amid the dinosaur kale, romesco cauliflower and other delectable crops growing in the school's "edible schoolyard."

Berkeley police and fire officials thanked Lee for $94,000 toward improving inter-agency radio communications, and transit officials crowed over $735,000 for a proposed Berkeley/Albany-San Francisco ferry route.

In Emeryville, Mayor Ken Bukowski and Vice Mayor Ruth Atkin cheered $300,000 for a new cultural arts center planned for the former United Stamping Co. building behind city hall, and $300,000 for a pump system to draw water from the bay for firefighting in case of earthquake or other disaster.

Back in Oakland, staffers gathered in the Alameda County Health Services building's lobby to applaud $287,000 for the county HIV/AIDS office's High Risk Behavior Change Campaign Initiative, and $135,000 for the African American Family HIV/AIDS program.

Later, at the Fruitvale Transit Village, La Clinica de La Raza CEO Jane Garcia said $287,000 Lee helped win will advance the San Antonio Neighborhood Health Center's expansion so that 5,000 more people per year will receive care. Unity Council CEO Gilda Gonzales said Lee helped land $196,000 for a Fruitvale Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

Finally, at Cherryland Middle School, officials praised Lee for bringing in $735,000 more to build sidewalks for children walking to school; her total for the unincorporated area's ongoing sidewalk project now tops $3 million.

Why spend a day flitting around the district on an AC Transit zero-emissions bus? It's an election year, but Lee won each of her last four elections with more than 80 percent of the vote; barring big gaffes, she'll probably hold that seat for as long as she wants it.

She said she does tours like this to highlight the fact that although her district faces challenges, it has plenty of good news, too — particularly where local leaders leverage federal money to progressively better their communities.

Between stops, Lee tried to keep up with her Blackberry while fielding questions.

On President Bush's trip to the Middle East, she said, he should've gone sooner and shouldn't be posturing so aggressively toward Iran while pushing a $30 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, both of which could further destabilize the region. 

She said she shares Americans' impatience with the ongoing Iraq war, but she praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, for shepherding a diverse caucus toward ending it; now the Senate must fall into line, she said. "Hopefully these elections will give us more numbers to work with," she said.

And she has another hope for November: that Barack Obama will be the next president. She said she was impressed to see "the energy and the optimism and the hope" she saw at the Oakland campaign headquarters this past weekend, and she'll be in South Carolina next weekend to mobilize Obama voters there.