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Juanita Millender-McDonald, 68; Southland congresswoman

Times Staff Writer

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a 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 onetime Carson City Council member and state legislator capped a precedent-setting career earlier this year by becoming the first African American 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.

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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.”

Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party, remembered her as “a champion for the consumer who fought injustice wherever she saw it.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) 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 state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), 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 African American areas have become increasingly Latino.

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 (D-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 Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) as ambassador to New Zealand and Fiji.

In recent years, she has made security at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach a priority.

Millender-McDonald was born Sept. 7, 1938, in Birmingham, Ala. After raising five children with her husband, James McDonald, she returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Redlands in 1979, at age 40. She then earned a master’s degree in educational administration at Cal State L.A. and studied public administration at USC.

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. Friends also remember her as broadly concerned with her community at large.

“She wasn’t a person who just stressed African Americans; she worked hard for all the community,” said Frances Cottrell, chairwoman of the Carson Planning Commission, who knew Millender-McDonald for almost 40 years.

The congresswoman had an early interest in politics. In 1982, she worked on L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign and pitched in on several local races in Carson.

Cottrell remembered seeing Millender-McDonald volunteering at Democratic events and speaking at City Council meetings. “I would think, ‘I’ll bet she’ll run for office one day,’ ” Cottrell said. “She was a very ambitious person, but at the same time very much a people person.”

Millender-McDonald also was skilled at building support networks. When she decided to run for the Carson City Council in 1990, she asked Dymally to support her.

“I said, ‘Local politics is too divisive; I don’t want to get involved,’ ” Dymally recalled. “She came back, this time with a delegation of friends and supporters. I said, ‘What do you want?’ She said, ‘I need your endorsement.’ ”

Dymally chuckled. “I said, ‘You have it.’ ”

She won the race, becoming the first African American woman elected to the council. She became the city’s mayor pro tem in 1991.

In 1992, she ran for the state Assembly, defeating two prominent Democrats in the primary and winning the general election.

In 1995, a local scandal opened her opportunity for a House seat. Two-term Rep. Walter R. Tucker III (D-Compton) was convicted of extortion and tax fraud for actions while mayor of Compton and sentenced to federal prison. With help from Emily’s List, a national group that helps finance female candidates, Millender-McDonald won the seat in 1996.

As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, she worked to secure federal funding for various local projects, including the Alameda Corridor.

Her voting record was consistently liberal. On key votes in 2005, she received a 90% rating from Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group.

In 2004, her son, R. Keith McDonald, a Los Angeles water district official, was convicted and sentenced to prison for extortion in a case involving municipal contracts. Millender-McDonald was not implicated in the case.

She is survived by her husband and five children.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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