Barbara Lett Simmons Remembered as Fighter for D.C.


Barbara Lett Simmons, a long-time District of Columbia activist and a champion of civil rights died on Dec. 22 at age 85, closing the book on a 63-year storied public service career.

A long-time Democratic Party activist, she made national news in 2000 after, as a member of the Electoral College, she withheld her previously pledged vote for Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Joe Lieberman as a protest for what she called D.C.’s “colonial status.”

The action was one of the many chapters in Simmons’ legendary political life. In 2004, she led a coalition to recall then-Mayor Anthony Williams (D). One of the group’s chief complaints was that Williams usurped the power of the District’s fully-elected school board by creating a hybrid of elected and appointed members.

While the recall effort did not gather the needed signatures, it was credited with triggering Williams’ decision not to seek re-election, paving the way for Adrian Fenty’s election as mayor in 2006. Simmons chaired Fenty’s first campaign for a D.C. Council seat, according to political consultant George “Gino” Gates, IV.

Simmons was a staunch advocate for education. After graduating in 1949 from Western Michigan University, began working as a school teacher in Detroit. In 1962, Simmons relocated with her family to D.C. and began teaching in Montgomery County, where she helped integrate the ranks of educators.

Then-school board member Marion Barry tapped Simmons to lead a search for a D.C. school superintendent in 1973. The panel ultimately recruited Barbara A. Sizemore from Chicago. That same year, Simmons was elected as a member of the first fully-elected D.C. Board of Education. Simmons was criticized in the mainstream press for Sizemore’s selection. Rather than cowering, Simmons boldly stood up to her critics. In a letter to the {Washington Post}, she charged that the newspaper’s management opposed Sizemore because she was an “African American woman.”

Simmons’ lengthy public service career included several decades as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, a tenure as a Democratic National Committee representative and 12 years on the D.C.

Board of Education. In 1981, Simmons was elected to serve as a D.C Statehood Constitutional Convention delegate and helped write the District’s constitution, which voters adopted in 1982. Simmons ran unsuccessfully for the D.C. Council in 1982 and 1984 and in 1990 for Congress against Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

Her most famous act was abstaining in the vote for Gore and Lieberman.
With that action, Simmons became a “faithless elector,” the term used for members of the Electoral College who renege on their pledges to vote for a candidate. Simmons is among only three in the 225 years of the Electoral College who abstained from voting.

Following news of Simmons death, Norton praised Simmons as “…a friend of mine and… a friend of the city to which she gave so much passionate devotion.”
Simmons was born on June 4, 1927, in Battle Creek, Mich. In 1950, she married Samuel J. Simmons, who worked for a time as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The couple spent 53 years together before his death in 2003. She is survived by two sons—David C. Simmons, the chief administration law judge of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, and Robert A. Simmons, both of Washington; a brother; and a granddaughter.

 

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Barbara Lett Simmons Remembered as Fighter for D.C.

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