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How high school activism put Barbara Lee on the path to Congress — and a fight for Dianne Feinstein's seat

Rep. Barbara Lee in race for Senate seat
Congresswoman Barbara Lee is in a highly competitive race for Sen. Dianne Feinstein's seat 06:49

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee is facing the fight of her career in the 2024 Senate election, but she says a lifelong passion for activism has given her all the motivation she needs as she campaigns for outgoing Sen. Dianne Feinstein's seat. 

Lee, 77, has been in Congress since 1998, and is the highest-ranking African American woman appointed to Democratic leadership, according to her website. While visiting San Fernando High School in southern California, her alma mater, Lee told CBS News that it was when trying out for the cheerleading team that she first found her voice. 

"There was a selection process and they had never selected a girl that looks like me. And so I went to the NAACP, and said, 'Look, I really want to be a cheerleader, but I can't make it through this process because I'm Black,'" Lee recalled. 

Lee said that conversation led to a change in the selection process, and the victory inspired her. Today, she continues to fight racial bias in schools from her Congressional seat. 

"Now I know that Black girls and girls of color are gonna be cheerleaders, and I mean, I was thinking like that at 15 and 16 years old," Lee said. "I look at politics and public service as being able to not tinker around the edges, but dismantling systems that are barriers for full and equal opportunity for everyone." 

Barbara Lee. CBS Mornings

Another high school experience would go on to inform her beliefs: Lee told CBS News that she had had an illegal abortion at the time. 

"It was a dark back alley, it was about 10:30 at night.The doc had a white coat on, there was light above the bed. I mean, I remember it very vividly, like it was yesterday," said Lee. She said she hid the abortion from "everybody" in her life at the time. 

"To live with that trauma and that stigma, the fear around it, the shame around it ... I felt horrible." 

Lee, who spoke passionately against the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on the House floor, said that she "never" expected to see the United States return to a point where people would again have to fight for the right to an abortion. 

Those two high school experiences informed her beliefs, but it wasn't until college that Lee's passion for politics was ignited. At Mills College in Oakland, California, she met Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968. According to Lee's website, she invited Chisholm to campus as the president of school's Black Student Union. Their meeting led Lee to register to vote for the first time, and she worked on Chisholm's 1972 presidential campaign and served as a delegate for Chisholm at the Democratic National Convention. 

Today, Lee is in what might be the toughest fight of her political life. She is competing with representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff in the race for the 90-year-old Feinstein's Senate seat. Porter is known for her tough questioning in the House Oversight Committee, while Schiff is backed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Schiff and Porter also have more money in their campaign coffers. 

Rep. Adam Schiff discusses Senate bid to replace Dianne Feinstein 08:03

But Lee said the finances aren't detering her. 

"Well, it's not I have fallen behind. I have been raising money over the years for our Democratic Party, for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for women, for women of color," she said. "And in fact, the barriers to raising money are there. But that's not gonna stop me."  

If elected, Lee will be the only Black woman in the Senate. It would be another achievement for Lee, who still remembers her early childhood growing up in segregated El Paso, Texas, and who heard her parents warn each other about cross burnings in San Leandro, a city she now represents. 

"Representation matters," Lee said. "We want everybody to have an opportunity to live the American dream."

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