California 12: Simon Says, ‘I’m Running’

by Jacob Rubashkin March 3, 2023 · 4:15 PM EST

Longtime California Rep. Barbara Lee became the third major candidate to toss her hat in the ring for the Golden State’s open Senate seat next year. And while her main competition, Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, set off heated battles for their congressional districts now that they are running statewide, it’s a different story in Lee’s 12th District.

Though safe seats such as the 12th only come around once in a generation — Lee has served since 1998 and before her Rep. Ron Dellums represented Oakland for 27 years — most Democrats are deferring a run in Lee’s Bay Area seat.

The result is a comparatively sleepy primary in a state that is playing host to pitched battles in nearly all its other corners.

The Lay of the Land
The 12th District encompasses the city of Oakland and some surrounding cities: Berkeley, Alameda, Albany, Emeryville, and most of San Leandro.

Oakland makes up 58 percent of the population, with Berkeley making up another 16 percent and Alameda 10 percent.

The district is incredibly diverse, with relatively equal proportions of white (33 percent), Asian (25 percent), Hispanic (24 percent) and Black (19 percent) residents. The Black population in the district has decreased as Oakland’s Black population has dropped precipitously since the days of Dellums.

Politically, the district is among the most Democratic in the nation. Joe Biden would have carried the 12th by 80 points, 89-9 percent. In 2022, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom won the district, 90-10 percent, and Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla won it, 91-9 percent.

The Successor
What could have been a massive primary has already winnowed down to just one Democrat: Bay Area Rapid Transit director and longtime civil rights and police reform advocate Lateefah Simon, who announced her bid to succeed Lee at the end of February.

Simon, 46, grew up in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood, and her career in activism began early. As a teenager, she started working with the Center for Young Women’s Development (now the Young Women Freedom Center), which helped at-risk women including sex workers, addicts and drug dealers, victims of domestic violence and others. Forgoing college, it took Simon just a few years to rise to the top of that organization, and in 2003 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” becoming the youngest woman ever to receive the prestigious award.

From 2005 to 2008, Simon worked for then-San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris as the director of re-entry services in Harris’s office. In 2008, she became the executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 2011 she moved to the Rosenberg Foundation, where she worked for five years.

In 2016, Simon became the president of the Akonadi Foundation, a social justice organization founded by Democratic mega-donors Wayne Jordan and Quinn Delaney, and was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to the California State University Board of Trustees. 

That same year she defeated incumbent Zakhary Mallett in the race for BART District 7, an expensive contest that saw her leverage support from unions and officeholders including Harris and Newsom to win 51-27 percent.

Simon, who is legally blind and has never driven a car, received an undergraduate degree from Mills College in 2017, and later earned a Masters of Public Administration from the University of San Francisco in 2022.

She was easily re-elected to the board in 2020, 64-36 percent. In 2022, Simon was briefly removed from the BART board because she moved just outside of her district — a law firm later found her removal unfounded and she was reinstated.

Also in 2022, she became the president of the Meadow Fund, a philanthropic venture funded by Patty Quillin, the wife of billionaire Netflix founder Reed Hastings.

Simon’s longtime consulting team is helmed by Bearstar Strategies, whose lead partner Ace Smith is also a top adviser to Newsom.

Most of the other obvious potential candidates quickly took themselves out of the running. State Assemblywomen Mia Bonta and Buffy Wicks have both endorsed Simon, as have state Sen. Nancy Skinner and former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb are running for state Senate.

The most notable politician to keep his name in the mix is former Oakland City Councilman Loren Taylor, who told the San Francisco Chronicle in January that he was "still evaluating different options and... not closing the door" on a bid.

Taylor, 45, narrowly lost the 2022 Oakland mayoral race to Sheng Thao, 50.3-49.7 percent. The Oakland native and Case Western (1999), University of Connecticut (MS, 2001), and Berkeley (MBA, 2005) graduate had the support of many local mayors in that race including Schaaf, San Francisco’s London Breed, and San Jose’s Sam Liccardo but fell just a few hundred votes short. 

Taylor, a management consultant, expressed interest in running to succeed Lee but has not spoken about his plans since Simon entered the race.

How It Plays Out
Barring unexpected circumstances, Simon will make the general election in California’s top-two electoral system. Given how Democratic the district is, if there is another Democrat on the ballot, that person is likely to make the general election as well.

If Taylor does run, he would almost certainly make the general election as well, given his base of support in Oakland. 

But he would be a serious underdog in the general election against Simon, given her deep relationships with the local unions and organizing networks, the political power players in the state (up to and including the vice president), and her connections to some of the region’s wealthiest Democratic donors.

Simon announced that she had raised $140,000 in the first 24 hours of her campaign.

Simon would be one of Congress’s most progressive members, and has staked out positions on issues such as defunding the police that might make more moderate members of the Democratic caucus anxious. But that’s not necessarily a liability in this district. Lee is also one of the chamber’s most progressive members, famously breaking with all 434 other House members to vote against the Afghanistan War and receiving death threats for it. Before Lee, Dellums was the first self-described socialist to serve in Congress in the post-war era. 

Taylor, the former councilman, did recently make news for chastising Thao, the current mayor, for suspending Oakland’s police chief after a report detailing police misconduct was released, calling the decision “excessive.”

But the district is so Democratic, it’s not clear if there would be room for Taylor to run effectively to Simon’s right, and he can’t rely on the few  GOP voters to help him compile a majority.