Rep. Millender-McDonald takes leave for cancer

Times Staff Writer

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) has taken a six-week leave of absence from Congress after being diagnosed with cancer, her office said Wednesday.

“The congresswoman wishes to thank everyone for their expressions of love, well wishes and prayers,” a statement issued by her office said. “She will maintain a limited schedule in her district and is requesting respect of her privacy at this time.”

Other public figures have talked about their battles against cancer recently, including White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential hopeful John Edwards. But Millender-McDonald has long been protective of information about her health.

Even members of her staff and some congressional colleagues do not know the exact nature of her illness.

In May 2005, she underwent what her office described as “major surgery” but she never disclosed the illness that kept her from her official duties for almost four weeks. Her son, R. Keith McDonald, received “temporary emergency release” from a 41-month prison term for public corruption to be with his mother during that period. The former Los Angeles water district official was convicted of extortion in a contracts case; his mother was not implicated.


The six-term congresswoman, 68, has missed more than 40 votes so far this year. Her leave, approved by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), runs through May 25.

“The speaker and House leadership have been amazingly supportive in attempting to make the transition smooth,” said a Millender-McDonald aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We will be operating without our principal five days a week.”

After the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections in November, Millender-McDonald lobbied to ban smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor -- the last refuge for smokers in Congress.

“I think health should take precedence over anything,” she said. Pelosi agreed, banishing smokers who once ruled the House with cigars and spittoons to the nearby balcony.

Millender-McDonald -- the first African American woman to head the House Administration Committee -- has turned over the committee reins to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.) during her leave of absence. But Brady is running in the May 15 Democratic primary for mayor of Philadelphia, and some speculate that much of the work of the committee may fall to the third in line in seniority: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose).

There has been speculation for some time about Millender-McDonald’s health, but she did not have a serious challenger in the 2006 elections, winning with more than 82% of the vote.

Millender-McDonald’s district incudes much of Long Beach, Signal Hill, Compton and Carson.