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The woman to see

1/20/2010, 7:46 a.m.
Despite Coakley's loss, philanthropist Barbara Lee still a political power Barbara Lee on election night 2009 with just a few...
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

State Rep. Willie Mae Allen ran unsuccessfully for Boston City Council twice in the 1980s but won the Sixth Suffolk District in 2006 and 2008 with Lee’s support. “I think that Barbara Lee doesn’t look and say, ‘This is a poor woman, and I’m going to help her,’ or, ‘This is a woman of color, and I’m going to help her,’” Allen said. “I think she looks at, ‘These are women who are trying to get out there and represent us, and we must get behind this woman.’”

In the past, Lee has supported female candidates from both parties, but she no longer gives her personal backing to Republicans, though her foundation remains bipartisan. In 2006, she maintained a neutral stance in the race between Democrat Deval Patrick and Republican Kerry Healey.

Lee also prefers to remain neutral in races between two Democratic women, but when her former fundraising coordinator Sonia Chang-Díaz challenged state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson in 2006 and again in 2008, Lee, who had previously been a Wilkerson supporter, kept a promise she had made to support Chang-Díaz.

When Chang-Díaz defeated Wilkerson in the primary and again in the general election, Wilkerson and some of her supporters accused Lee of trying to buy the election, though Wilkerson actually spent more on her campaign.

Lee dismissed any accusations of trying to buy elections. “Candidates win elections because of their own steam and because of their own efforts,” she said.

Cabral agreed that the criticism of Lee was unfair. “The fact that she was supporting Sonia shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum,” she said. “She was very supportive of Sen. Wilkerson for several years and had maxed out her contributions to Sen. Wilkerson and had been openly supportive of her. So it wasn’t that she was shunning Dianne Wilkerson; she was encouraging another woman to get involved in politics, and one with whom she had a personal friendship.”

Lee said she has always taken inspiration from her grandmother, Minnie Greenberg, who told her stories about her experiences as a young woman watching women suffragists marching on Fifth Avenue in New York City to demand the right to vote.

 “She was a young mother when women finally got to vote for the first time in 1920 — literally my mother was a newborn at that time,” Lee recalled. “My grandmother went to the polls for the first time very excited and also scared about doing it. And then she never missed an election from then until the end of her life at the good old age of 96.”

Lee grew up middle-class in West Orange, N.J., where she was her high school class treasurer, and went on to Simmons College. Shortly after graduation, she married Thomas Lee, who would make a fortune through leveraged buyouts of companies including Snapple and Ghirardelli Chocolate. She worked as a teacher and as a social worker and raised their two sons Zach, now 38, and Robbie, 28.

When the Lees divorced in 1995 after 27 years of marriage, Forbes magazine estimated that she walked away with $200 million, one of the largest settlements in Massachusetts history. After the divorce, she became increasingly involved in politics and philanthropy.