On the surface, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and opponent Marilyn Singleton are awfully similar.
Both are black women born in a now antiquated United States where casual racism and segregation were pervasive.
Singleton still remembers marching down to Woolworth’s, a now defunct retail firm that featured segregated lunch counters. Segregation was normal in housing, and interracial couples at school dances were unheard of.
Lee grew up in a similar environment. In fact, this segregation was a reality for her since birth, when her mother was denied admission to a hospital while in labor on the basis of her skin color. Today, Lee is distinguished for her work in civil rights activism.
Both women are highly educated with successful careers. Singleton attended Stanford University, while Lee went to Mills College in Oakland. The two later attended graduate school at UC Berkeley.
Finally, both candidates are Californians with deep roots in the state. Lee has lived in California since 1960 when she moved at the age of 14, whereas Singleton is a native of the state.
But beyond superficial details, voters will find two distinct candidates with very separate ideas on what issues need to be tackled in California’s new 13th District, which includes all of Berkeley and Oakland.
For one, although faced with similar societal pressures, the candidates traveled very separate paths into adulthood and are distinct politically.
Singleton is an independent who refuses to be characterized by any party.
“(An independent) is basically what I am,” said Singleton. “I registered as a Democrat for a few months and got propaganda, then reregistered as ‘declined to state.’ I registered as a Republican for six weeks, got propaganda and reregistered as ‘no party preference.’”
Moreover, Singleton feels that Lee has not done a good job in her position as representative in terms of improving schools and creating jobs and said she would distinguish herself as a representative.
Singleton claims her politics would be less race-focused.
“I’m not quite so racial-centric — I don’t think that everything is a product of racism,” she said. “I certainly grew up with these same race issues, but I don’t think the way to move ahead with it is one dwelling on it and indicating that people are always racist because they don’t agree with you.”
In contrast, Lee views racial issues and discrimination as something that she must challenge to break structural institutions of inequality.
“You cannot ignore the fact that there are obstacles and barriers in this country,” Lee said. “There’s discrimination against the LGBT community, there’s discrimination against people of color and there’s discrimination against women. I’m going to fight until this discrimination is ended so that everyone can participate in the American dream.”
For Lee, this is a goal she has been working toward over the course of her entire career.
“(My congressional career) is a continuation of what I see as my fight for justice, for everybody,” Lee said. “I’ve been doing this all my life.”
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who has known Lee since the 1970s, praised her work, especially with foreign policy and HIV/AIDS. Bates described her as a “great colleague” with whom he worked closely in the California State Assembly.
But Singleton finds the current political environment too enthralled with “bashing the rich.”
“You have to define ‘rich,’” said Singleton. “There has to be a real division, and the policy has to be looked at and not just the 30-second sound bites. And that’s what the problem is, and that’s the problem with career politicians.”
Lee is adamant about ending Bush-era tax cuts and bringing “some kind of fairness in our tax system.”
Though impassioned, Singleton faces an uphill battle. Lee has consistently been re-elected in landslides, winning over 80 percent of the vote. Additionally, Lee’s campaign has raised considerably more money.
Despite obvious challenges, Singleton remains confident of being elected.
“You don’t put in as much time as it takes to run for office and decide you’re going to lose,” Singleton said. “People are hungry for something different.”
Constituents may disagree. Bates described Lee as “the most popular elected official in the East Bay” and said she has about an 80 percent approval rating in Berkeley alone — statistics consistent with her election-time performance.
“(Singleton) has very little chance,” Bates said.