The woman to see

1/20/2010, 7:46 a.m.
Barbara Lee on election night 2009 with just a few of the women she’s helped elect to public office. From left, top row: state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. From left, bottom row: At-Large Councilor Ayanna Pressley, state Rep. Willie Mae Allen, Barbara Lee and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante. Scotland Willis

Despite Coakley's loss, philanthropist Barbara Lee still a political power

When Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley lost her bid to be the first woman to represent the commonwealth in the United States Senate, it was a blow to many who hoped to see the “Kennedy Seat” remain in Democratic hands indefinitely.

But it was a special disappointment for Coakley campaign co-chair and personal friend Barbara Lee.

Lee, 64, has for more than a decade dedicated much of her time and personal fortune to the goal of getting women elected. Talk to almost any woman in public office locally and to many nationally, and the story is the same.

“She just was always there, with advice, with resources; she raised money for me. The day of the primary … Barbara Lee spent the day phone-banking for me,” recalled Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, who met Lee shortly before beginning her first campaign.

“And she was constantly talking me up to everyone she knew,” Cabral added, “in some cases raising money and in some cases just making introductions and getting my name out there. She’s very much a putting-her-money-where-her-mouth-is kind of person.”

Besides Cabral and Coakley, Lee has supported local women leaders including state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, state Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry and Willie Mae Allen, Boston At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and many others. Nationally, she has supported Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and dozens more.

In 2008, Lee was a top fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign but joined with Clinton in throwing her support behind Barack Obama when he became the presumptive Democratic nominee. That was another close race, with another disappointing outcome for Lee’s candidate, but speaking about it in a phone interview last week, Lee was characteristically upbeat.

“I think what is so amazing is that Hillary winning more than 18 million votes and winning all of those primaries in so many states, including Massachusetts, is really a monumental change,” she said. “I think that women are making monumental change incrementally. And so many people rallied around Hillary, and what I have found is that Americans can now envision a woman president.”

As Coakley campaign co-chair, Lee says she’s helped make some strategic decisions and has been very involved in fundraising and get-out-the-vote activities. She has sent emails to her broad network of contacts and has made calls to voters at Coakley phone-banks. On Election Day, she said, she planned to knock on doors and speak one-on-one with voters about Coakley.

“I am proud to do the hard work along with everybody else, and I think that it keeps me in touch with what’s happening on the ground,” she said. “I deeply believe in the grassroots organization of every campaign.”

Encouraged by Lee to run for office after their first meeting, recently inaugurated Boston At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley can attest to that.

“A lot of people talk about her formidable fundraising,” Pressley said, “but I have to say that not only did she invest in my campaign and encourage other people to do the same, she also wore out a lot of shoe leather. Barbara Lee worked a poll for me, she held a sign for me, she passed out literature and recruited her staff and her networks to do the same.”