The Mercury News
With Biden, world leaders hope for renewed cooperation.
Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland wore pearls that belonged to Shirley Chisholm, 1st Black woman elected to Congress
At Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, laden with messages of hope and unity, Bay Area lawmakers felt something else, too: pride in the Golden State.
As light snow turned to sunshine in Washington, D.C., the region’s diverse and proudly progressive congressional delegation watched as one of their own, Oakland native Kamala Harris, took the oath of office to become vice president, shattering a bevy of barriers in the process. First female vice president. First Black vice president. First Indian American vice president.
They breathed a sigh of relief as, just days after an angry mob stormed the Capitol, the inauguration of Joe Biden as the next president went smoothly. And, with Democrats set to have control of the White House and both the House of Representatives and Senate, they began to dream about what might be achievable in the next few years, from immigration reform to plain civility.
It’s been a month of banner Wednesdays, said Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin. Two weeks ago, the Capitol was breached. Last Wednesday, the House voted to impeach Donald Trump for the second time. And this Wednesday, a new administration was sworn in.
“Today was an opportunity to renew our democracy and we did,” Swalwell said. “What we do next is really important.”
Four years ago, he went to dinner with two Dublin constituents who supported Trump the night before his inauguration and gave them tickets to the ceremony, which he also attended. The former president’s speech, he said, was dark and divisive, foreshadowing the tumult to come.
“That was not an easy decision for me,” he said. “But I wanted to show we could have a peaceful transition of power and I was going to be a witness from his first day to his last day.”
Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee made a different decision in 2017. Back then, Lee agreed with the late Rep. John Lewis that the pair would not attend Trump’s inauguration because of his ties to white supremacy. This year, she relished watching history, and arrived dressed for the occasion in pearls that belonged to Shirley Chisholm, her mentor and the first Black woman elected to Congress.
“Because of Shirley Chisholm, I am,” Lee said. “And because of Shirley Chisholm, Vice President Harris is. She paved the way.”
Lee added that while she chatted with family members and constituents after the ceremony, she was also busy with a new coronavirus relief package.
“I’ve got a heck of a lot of work to do,” she said.
Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont watched the inauguration on television, opting not to attend in part because of concerns about the deadly pandemic. While he wasn’t with his colleagues in person, he was still moved by the ceremony, particularly the young poet Amanda Gorman, also from California, speaking of a nation “not broken but simply unfinished.”
The Biden administration, Khanna hopes, can bring “a sense of respect and healing and decency that people have been hungering for.” He pointed out that not only is Vice President Harris from the Bay Area, but so is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the second in line for the presidency behind Harris.
“It’s a good moment for the Bay Area and the quality of leaders the area is producing,” Khanna said.
But local lawmakers also cautioned that there is still hard work to be done, that the divisions, vitriol and violence showcased at the Capitol on Jan. 6 did not disappear when Trump departed for his postpresidential life in Florida.
“They’re still here,” Lee said. “We all have to realize that domestic terrorism is a huge issue.”
Lee interned for former Rep. Ron Dellums and remembers standing in the Capitol and watching Richard Nixon’s helicopter fly past after he was impeached. Today, she said, she stood in her office with her chief of staff and watched Trump’s helicopter fly past.
“This man has almost destroyed our democracy,” she said. “He tried and we didn’t let it happen, which is a testament to the American people.”
Still, she thinks there is common ground to be found with Republicans on coronavirus relief, because, she said, “their constituents are dying of COVID just like mine,” and losing jobs and going hungry.
And while she is not assuming divisions will slide away easily, Lee said, “I have to be optimistic.” Khanna agrees.
“I think there are areas where we can find common ground,” Khanna said, pointing not only to COVID relief but internet access for all Americans and social media laws.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, who also watched the inauguration from home because of concerns about the coronavirus, said she thinks Congress can come together on certain issues. But she was also pleased to see Biden sign a series of executive orders that reversed a travel ban targeting Muslim countries and paused border wall construction.
“This is just the beginning,” Lofgren said.
In a brief interview between the inauguration ceremony and his own swearing-in, new California Sen. Alex Padilla summed up the day: “It was like a weight was being lifted off our shoulders, but at the same time, a reminder that we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
Padilla, who said his first order of business is helping get the coronavirus pandemic under control (his father still lives in his childhood home in the San Fernando Valley in the epicenter of California’s outbreak), is the first Latinx senator from the Golden State. He was sworn in by Harris, who despite her busy schedule had already been in touch with him Wednesday morning with a reminder that she’s available to help.
“I’m well aware of the respect and opportunity that comes with it, to do the job and do the job well for all Californians,” Padilla, the son of immigrants from Mexico, said. “But it’s definitely an opportunity I will take full advantage of to bring my life experience and my family’s journey to the U.S. Senate.”