Friday, April 27, 2007

R.I.P. To Pioneering Black Congresswoman...

Calif. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, 68, dies

By Nicole Gaouette
Times Staff Writer

8:14 PM PDT, April 22, 2007

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a California Democrat whose House district encompassed Compton, Carson, much of Long Beach and parts of south Los Angeles, died of cancer Sunday. She was 68 and had served in Congress since 1996.

The one-time Carson City Council member and state legislator capped a precedent-setting career earlier this year by becoming the first black woman to head the House Committee on Administration, which oversees federal elections and the House's day-to-day operations.

The committee doles out room assignments and sets the office budgets for House members and the committees on which they serve -- duties that, within the confines of Capitol Hill, make it a key panel.

Millender-McDonald's chief of staff, Bandele McQueen, said the congresswoman died at her Carson home. Millender-McDonald had announced last week that she was taking a leave of absence from the House because of her illness, her first public disclosure that she was battling cancer.

Carson Mayor Jim Dear said Millender-McDonald had colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver.

"She was very active and working hard for the people of the 37th Congressional District all the way up until the end," he said. "She was always there to help people in need."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised her as "a trailblazer, always advocating for the full participation of all Americans in the success and prosperity of our country."

President Bush called her "a dedicated public servant who tirelessly and honorably served her country for many years."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described Millender-McDonald as "a problem-solver and a barrier-breaker who was always charging forward with a glint in her eye."

Other friends remembered a dignified, gracious woman who was always impeccably turned out. They said Millender-McDonald was deeply committed to her constituents and to protecting her privacy, a quality that meant many were unprepared for the news of her death.

"I thought that when she took a leave, that was an opportunity for her to recover; I did not know (her health) was very critical," said California Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a Democrat from Carson and a longtime friend who formerly served in the House representing a district with boundaries similar to those of Millender-McDonald.

"Even as public as she was with her life, she was very private," he said. "She was not one who sought the cameras."

Under state law, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has 14 days to set a date for a special election to fill her seat. Overwhelmingly Democratic, communities in the 37th District have reflected the demographic shifts across much of Los Angeles County -- in recent decades, largely black have become increasingly Hispanic.

Millender-McDonald's death is likely to set off "a major scramble" for her seat, said Dymally, who was California's lieutenant governor in the mid-1970s.

Since the constituency is largely based in Long Beach, an elected official from there likely would be the odds-on favorite to win the seat, said Allen Hoffenblum, a political consultant who specializes in analyzing local races. He cited state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, a Democrat from Long Beach, as a potentially strong candidate.

Republicans controlled the House during all but the last few months of Millender-McDonald's tenure, constraining her opportunities to enact legislation. But she occasionally demonstrated a flair for dramatic political gestures.

In 1996, she brought then-CIA director John Deutsch to Watts to address allegations that the agency was using profits from crack-cocaine sales to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. The incident led Glamour Magazine to describe Millender-McDonald in a 1997 article as "one of 11 women who will change the world."

In 1999, she staged a sit-in" at the office of former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to force the confirmation of former Sen. Carol Mosley Braun, D-Ill., as ambassador to New Zealand and Fiji.

In recent years, she has made the security of the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach a priority.

Millender-McDonald was born on Sept. 7, 1938, in Birmingham, Ala. After raising five children with her husband, James McDonald, in Carson, she returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Redlands in 1979, at age 40.

She then received a master's degree in educational administration from California State University of Los Angeles and studied public administration at the University of Southern California.

She spent her early career teaching high school and working at a career center. She served as a writer and editor for the Los Angeles Unified School District and edited IMAGES, a state textbook designed to boost the self-esteem of young women.

Her interest in issues affecting women and young people was a constant throughout her career.

"She wasn't a person who just stressed African-Americans, she worked hard for all the community," said Frances Cottrell, chairwoman of Carson's planning commission, who knew Millender-McDonald for almost 40 years. The congresswoman said an early interest in politics was sparked by seeing President John F. Kennedy speak at USC.

She is survived by her five children and her husband.

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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