Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, was announced as chairwoman-elect of the Congressional Black Caucus at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday.
She takes the 42-member caucus' reins as its power seems ascendant. Members will lead the House Judiciary, Homeland Security and Ways and Means committees in the 111th Congress; another, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., will be the majority whip; and all of them will work in tandem with the nation's first black president, Barack Obama, of whom Lee was an early and ardent supporter.
"We have many, many challenges, but those challenges do present historic opportunities," she said Wednesday. "When you look at the economy and the fact that millions of Americans' lives are in shambles due to the foreclosure crisis, that's the first priority for all of us."
Obama's approach to tempering the economic crisis reflects strategies the CBC has been pursuing for years, Lee said, and she said she's confident her caucus and other House Democrats will "be able to work together to reach consensus on a common agenda with the White House."
Lee said she also relishes working in her new role with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, even as Pelosi keeps striving to keep a somewhat fractious House Democratic Caucus in line.
"Of course, a Democratic Caucus is very democratic, we all have our points of view," Lee said. "But the Congressional Black Caucus has been called 'the conscience of the Congress,' and we're going to continue to be that and to help our Speaker."
Lee's bid to head the caucus was unopposed; only the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, had expressed interest in the job before she died in August. Lee has helped lead the CBC for six years, first as whip and then as first vice chair, and praised outgoing Chairwoman Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich., Wednesday for doing "a phenomenal job in keeping our caucus together and for the many legislative victories achieved under her leadership." Lee had wanted the chair in 2006 but bowed out to avoid a divisive race against Kilpatrick.
Lee also Wednesday congratulated the caucus' other newly elected officers. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., will be first vice chairman; Rep. Donna Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, will be second vice chairwoman; Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., will be secretary; and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., will be the caucus' whip.
The Congressional Black Caucus was formed after the 1970 election with 13 members; Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums was among the founding members and led the caucus for the 101st Congress. Lee was a longtime Dellums aide, working her way up through his office's ranks until she was his chief of staff, before serving in the California Legislature and moving on to Congress herself.
Lee said it's "very humbling, an honor" to follow in Dellums' footsteps to the caucus' chair. Dellums "opened the door of opportunity" to her and other women of color when few served as Capitol Hill senior staffers, she said: "He really gave me a chance to break some glass ceilings."
She also paid tribute to Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and in 1972 was the first major-party African-American presidential candidate. "This is really about those who helped me and paved the way," Lee said.