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Broader Horizons : Seat in Congress Opens New Doors for Juanita Millender-McDonald

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The photographer asked the new congresswoman to turn and walk toward him so the ornate Speaker’s Lobby would be in the background.

Suddenly, a Capitol Hill policeman rushed up to inform her that shooting pictures in the meeting area just off the House floor was strictly forbidden.

Then the security guard spotted the gold lapel pin that House members wear and changed his tune.

“Oh,” he said soothingly, making a mental note of the member’s face, “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

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Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, California’s newest member of Congress, did not seem to mind a bit. Having been sworn in only three days earlier, she could hardly be expected to know all the arcane lore of the House--nor could everyone know her.

She is filling out the term of former Rep. Walter R. Tucker III, who resigned late last year after a conviction in a bribery scandal.

For now, Millender-McDonald is focusing on the fundamentals, such as navigating the Capitol’s subterranean passageways and organizing her Washington office.

Since her arrival early last week, a frazzled team of three staff members has been fielding phone calls, tending to visitors and feeding the fax machine.

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Plaques and citations dot the walls and magazines stuff the racks, but the modest warren of offices definitely has that just-moved-in-look.

“I love it, I think it’s really nice,” Millender-McDonald said in a forgiving appraisal of her fourth-floor suite in the venerable Cannon Office Building.

It is not as grand as the Sacramento digs she had occupied as a member of the California Assembly.

“A constituent came [to Washington] to visit and remembered the suite I had when I was chairwoman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee,” Millender-McDonald recalled brightly. “But I’m not chairwoman of the [House] Ways and Means Committee, so I can’t get an office quite that large.”

Not that she is complaining, mind you.

“I’m very excited about being here,” Millender-McDonald said. “It feels good coming to even a greater [legislative] body . . . to help the people of the region and the people of my district.”

Surrounded by more than a dozen family members, including her five children, she was sworn in by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Afterward, her fellow Democrats welcomed her warmly.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) hailed her as a “woman with almost unlimited interests and abilities” and a “sage and experienced legislator.”

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Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), the dean of California Democrats in the House, said, “I hope that she will be the first in a series of new members that will be elected from California.”

Presumably, Brown was envisioning a surge of Democratic success in November to return his party to numerical dominance in the delegation. Millender-McDonald’s swearing-in officially gave the two major parties equal halves of the 52-member House delegation. She also becomes the 196th Democrat in the House.

Millender-McDonald is settling in to her new job because her predecessor as representative of the 37th Congressional District had to make an early departure.

Tucker resigned in December after being convicted of extortion and income tax fraud stemming from his days as mayor of Compton. He was sentenced Wednesday to 27 months in federal prison.

Millender-McDonald won the right to fill out the remaining months of Tucker’s term after beating eight other Democrats in a special election March 26. She also got enough votes to appear on the ballot in November for reelection.

Given the district’s political characteristics, Millender-McDonald is expected to cruise to victory over the Republican nominee, contractor Michael E. Voetee.

The 37th District includes some of southern Los Angeles County’s poorest and most overwhelmingly Democratic communities, including Carson, Compton and Lynwood.

Republican registration hovers around 12%, and blacks outnumber whites 34% to 26%.

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The district has been hurt by the withering of defense contracts and the shutdown of the Long Beach Naval Station and Shipyard, and scores of Compton businesses were damaged or destroyed during the 1992 riots.

High on Millender-McDonald’s congressional agenda is the care and feeding of the Alameda Corridor project, which runs the length of the district and includes ambitious plans for rail and road improvements to move goods swiftly from port facilities to downtown distribution centers.

“There is a critical need for jobs with good wages to give [the district] a sense of hope and economic well-being,” she said.

Smoothly picking up the lingo as a member of a national legislature, Millender-McDonald hastened to point out that the construction of the Alameda Corridor “would help every region of the country.”

She already has been able to lend support to the project.

Shortly after her swearing-in, Millender-McDonald cast one of her first votes to place federal transportation trust funds “off-budget” so that the money cannot be used in Congress’ quest to balance the federal budget.

Millender-McDonald then learned Thursday that she would be assigned to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee--her first choice. Other committee assignments are being considered by the House leadership.

She is expected to become a reliable Democratic vote for programs to assist the elderly and poor and to push for disaster assistance for her earthquake-prone area.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Millender-McDonald, 57, has lived in Carson for more than 28 years.

She attended the University of Redlands and earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Cal State L.A.

Starting her career as a teacher, Millender-McDonald also worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District as director of a gender-equity program.

Her first foray into politics was in 1990 when she was elected to the Carson City Council--the first African American woman to do so.

In 1992, she knocked off two Democratic primary incumbents and went on to represent the 55th Assembly District.

While in Sacramento, Millender-McDonald compiled a liberal voting record. But she won election in part with support from motorcyclists because of her opposition to a state helmet law.

In a political payback, Millender-McDonald’s son, Keith, was denied his bid to replace her in the state Assembly. He was beaten by Richard E. Floyd, whom his mother had defeated in the 1992 primary.

Millender-McDonald was the first woman and the first minority to chair the Assembly Insurance Committee and the first woman to chair the Revenue and Taxation Committee.

Her election to the House has allowed her to make a personal change that she could not accomplish in Sacramento: use of her hyphenated last name.

Previously known as Juanita M. McDonald, she wanted to include her maiden name out of respect to her father, who raised five children after his wife died when Millender-McDonald was 3 years old. But the name was too long for the Assembly’s vote board.

In Washington it fits just fine.

Times staff writer Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this story.


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