Catching up with Barbara Lee and Pete Stark

Having argued the budget all last week, Bay Area House members were pounding the local pavement today, and I got to spend some time chatting with Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Pete Stark.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)Lee, D-Oakland, started her day by visiting with parents and teachers at the Early Head Start program at Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway. That site serves 20 low-income toddlers and infants; it’s part of the city’s Head Start program, run in collaboration with the Unity Council and serving 1,374 three- to five-year-olds and 200 infants and toddlers.

The continuing resolution for the remainder this fiscal year passed by the Republican-run House late Friday would trim more than $1 billion from Head Start nationwide, reducing benefits to more than 200,000 children including about 27,000 in California.

From there, Lee came to the Oakland Tribune’s offices to meet with our editorial board; I sat in.

“For Head Start to be on the chopping block, to me, is mind-boggling,” she said, noting that with 100 families on the waiting list in Oakland, the program should be getting more funding, not less.

She also talked about how Democrats’ efforts to extend unemployment insurance benefits for “99ers” – long-term unemployed workers who’ve already exceeded the 99 weeks of benefits to which they’re now entitled – was excluded from this continuing resolution, just as it was excluded from the tax deal signed into law in December. Her own bill to extend the benefits, however, is far from dead, she vowed; she said she has 67 co-sponsors and will do whatever she can to bring it to a vote. “This has got to happen.”

Why fight so hard for these things when Democrats are in the House’s minority? “Why am I there? What’s the alternative?” she responded. “I can’t say I’m even cautiously optimistic, but it’s moving.”

She also renewed her defense of earmark spending, noting that in her 9th Congressional District, targeted budget lines have helped fund the Chabot Space & Science Center, the Cypress Mandela Training Center, Youth Radio, the Alameda County Office of AIDS Administration, the Oakland Unified School District, the Alameda County Library’s Castro Valley branch, La Clinica de la Raza, Asian Health Services, and sidewalks in the Ashland and Cherryland unincorporated areas.

“Earmarks are a good thing, and I am so sick of hearing bad things about earmarks,” she said, noting that President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to veto any bill containing earmarks led her to sign onto a “cordial” letter to the White House urging his reconsideration. “I’m going to fight this one to the end. I don’t know how and when we’re going to be able to restore this.”

Lee said she intends to keep pushing for defense budget cuts, at least to match those being made to domestic programs. She said she’s adamant about protecting Social Security against Republicans’ plan to partially privatize it. And she said she wants to do more to help homeowners facing foreclosure. All of this as she tries to balance Democrats’ efforts to get the President re-elected next year with the continuing pressure that she and other progressives want to exert upon him on issues from Afghanistan to earmarks.

Pete StarkStark, D-Fremont, started his day by visiting a government class at Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School, then meeting at his district office with a construction-workers union that’s concerned about who’ll be moving the assembly line equipment in the former New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant as electric carmaker Tesla Motors moves in.

Then he met with me for about an hour at San Leandro’s Paradiso restaurant. Accompanied only by his 15-year-old son, Fortney Hillman “Fish” Stark III, he sipped a diet soda while discussing his desire to cut defense spending while protecting some of the domestic programs on which some of his most vulnerable constituents rely.

We talked about how his 13th Congressional District is somewhat socially bifurcated, with a somewhat older, somewhat whiter constituency in its northern areas and a somewhat younger, somewhat more multiethnic constituency to the south. We revisited that theme again toward the end of our chat, as he said he’s waiting with great interest to see how the Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw House district lines later this year. But he said there’s no truth to the rumor that at 79 – and as the House’s fifth-most-senior member and the dean of California’s delegation – he’s not planning on running next year.

Given Lee’s comments, I asked Stark about rebuilding support for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “There’s been an amazing amount of progressive legislation that’s come out,” he said, from health care reform to the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay and lesbian servicemembers. The President will have to remain labor-friendly in order to put a lot of campaign boots on the ground in Alameda County next year, he said, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

On the situation in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is trying to break the public employee union, Stark noted his native state is politically odd in that it’s split between a conservative farm belt in the west and labor-centric cities like Milwaukee and Racine in the east. National labor unions seem to see it as “a make or break contest,” he said. “I wish we weren’t trying to decide the outcome of public employee bargaining for the whole country based on what they do there, but that may be the case.”

We touched on other topics from the falling dominoes of regime change in North Africa and the Middle East to the ongoing threat of terrorism and how it’s balanced against preservation of our civil liberties. And, looking past the current budget battle, he predicted the rest of 2011 will be about Republicans trying to roll back last year’s health-care reforms and Democrats trying to preserve them.

Stark will meet with constituents in a town-hall meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Feb. 24 at the Fremont Senior Center, 40086 Paseo Padre Parkway.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    Lee never met a spending plan she didn’t like. Other than defense of course, just like her guru good old Ron Dellums. Dellums and his co-conspirator dimmiecrats did everything they could to make the military’s life miserable and then whined pitifully when all the Bay Area bases were closed.

    Berkeley’s defense plan is modeled after the French:

    Run! Hide! Surrender! Collaborate!

  • Common Tater

    Who on earth would want to “catch up” with Lee and Stark.