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Meet the woman Rep. Barbara Lee literally passed the congressional baton to

Lateefah Simon, who was born legally blind, said she has weathered challenges that have fostered in her a sense of empathy and an urge to help others.
Lateefah Simon
Lateefah Simon holds a baton that Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., gave her as she speaks on Super Tuesday election night in Oakland, Calif.Jane Tyska / Digital First Media / East Bay Times via Getty Images

When Lateefah Simon, a congressional candidate for California’s 12th District, stopped by outgoing Rep. Barbara Lee’s election headquarters in Oakland on Super Tuesday, she intended to bring well wishes to the veteran congresswoman in her run for the U.S. Senate.

“I’d been told she was catching a flight back to Washington, D.C.,” said Simon, whose campaign shared the same office building downtown. “I wanted to say hello and show my support.”

But it was the congresswoman who surprised Simon with a gift. She took the candidate by the hand during a news conference and, as supporters and media looked on, she passed her the baton — literally. 

“Barbara gave me an actual baton,” said Simon, 47, of the shiny blue cylinder that she accepted to cheers and applause. “I was humbled. It is an honor and great responsibility, one that I feel I must live up to.”

Earlier this month, Simon emerged as the top vote-getter in a field of nine, officially garnering 55% of the vote in the primary for the seat Lee represented for 26 years. Simon will face her closest contender, fellow Democrat Jennifer Tran, in November’s general election. 

Simon is currently the president of Meadow Fund, which provides grants and funding to organizations focused on race, gender, justice reform and voting rights. She also serves as a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors, an elected post she said stemmed from her “reliance” on public transportation. 

Rep. Barbara Lee, right, with Lateefah Simon.
Rep. Barbara Lee, right, with Lateefah Simon in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday.Jane Tyska / Digital First Media / East Bay Times via Getty Images

Her prior roles as a civil rights advocate and nonprofit leader in the last two decades have largely focused on equity initiatives.

“I have spent my career fighting for people who traditionally have not had a voice in places of power,” the San Francisco native said. 

Simon said she gleans inspiration from women leaders such as Lee and Vice President Kamala Harris, who she says recognized and nurtured her potential early on. 

Simon and Lee first met years ago at Mills College, a then-all-women’s campus that merged with Northeastern University in 2022. “She was teaching a course, and I was one of her students,” Simon recalled. “We’ve been connected ever since. I just love her.”

Though they were born decades apart, their lives have had some parallels. Both became single mothers while young, sometimes bringing their children to class due to lack of child care. Both awakened to the power of politics, advocacy and community organizing to effect change.

Now, Simon wants to represent the district where Lee, the highest-ranking Black woman appointed to Democratic leadership in the House, has held a seat since 1998. 

According to U.S. Census data, California’s 12th District is one of the most multiracial, politically progressive areas in the country — home to cities like Berkeley, where the free speech movement percolated, to Oakland and its liberation politics. 

Lee decided to forgo re-election in the House to run for the Senate, seeking the seat formerly held by the late Dianne Feinstein and now by her appointed successor, Sen. Laphonza Butler, who has opted against running for election. Lee lost the primary to a Democratic colleague, Rep. Adam Schiff, who, in November, will face the primary’s second-place finisher, Republican Steve Garvey. 

Meanwhile, Lee plans to serve out her House term until a new member is sworn in next January. She has formally endorsed Simon, calling her a “true fighter for peace and justice.” 

“Lateefah is from the community, and for the community,” said Lee in a statement. “From her teenage years working to support young women and trans youth, to fighting to make public transit more affordable and accessible, she is a fierce advocate and proven leader.”

Simon, who was born legally blind, said she has experienced discrimination and weathered challenges that have fostered in her a sense of empathy and a lifetime of fighting for those in need.

At 16, she began working as an outreach coordinator for the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco, helping marginalized young women empower themselves.

At 18, she became pregnant and raised her eldest daughter as a single mother. “It was a struggle,” she said, “and I learned firsthand how important it was that government really work for people in need.”

She persevered, rising through the ranks to eventually become the center’s executive director. She earned national acclaim for her efforts, and, at age 26, she became the youngest woman to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2003.

Some time later she met Kamala Harris, then San Francisco’s district attorney, who would prove to be a pivotal influence for Simon, as she was tapped to help develop and lead Back on Track, an anti-recidivism initiative for young adults charged with low-level offenses. 

“She told me I needed to be excellent and encouraged me to pursue my education,” said Simon, who holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy and a master of public administration degree from the University of San Francisco.  “And she introduced me to my future husband,” Kevin Weston, a journalist. The pair were married until he died of cancer in 2014.

Simon is raising the couple’s 12-year-old daughter with support from her oldest daughter — now an attorney — as well as the proverbial “village.”

Even with health insurance, Simon said, her late husband’s hospital bills left her nearly $1 million in debt. She was fortunate that her East Bay network rallied around, she said, assisting with everything from rent to groceries. “I understand what working families are going through,” she said.

It’s this type of “lived experience” that female candidates can bring to Congress, said Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. 

Besides the nod from Lee, Simon has also racked up key endorsements, such as those of Gov. Gavin Newsom and the labor groups SEIU, EMILY’s List and Higher Heights for America PAC.

The Collective PAC, which works to increase Black political engagement and representation, helping more than 400 candidates win races nationwide, has also endorsed Simon.

Co-founder and President Quentin James told NBC News that it’s “much harder” for Black female candidates to raise the massive funding necessary to buy ads and pay for the numerous elements of a federal campaign. Still, he believes Simon — whose team said she has raised more than $1.2 million to date — is well-positioned. Her “résumé and bio speak for themselves,” James said. “She has gone above and beyond in supporting her community. She’s done the work.”

Simon hopes she can follow the path of trailblazing Black members of Congress such as the late Shirley Chisholm of New York and Rep. Ron Dellums of California, co-founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, who both passed the mantle of service to Lee. 

“The baton Mr. Dellums gave her was real, too,” she said. 

Overall, Simon wants to be a champion for the people. “I want to take their stories with me to Washington so their voices are heard by the most powerful leaders in the nation,” she said.

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