Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard sees Congress through the eyes of her Latino icon father


Some of the tourists filtering up Independence Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol pause and glance at the 3-inch placard at the base of a young red oak, the newest memorial to a Latino icon who represented Los Angeles in Congress for 30 years.

Rep. Edward Roybal's name is on buildings around California and the rest of the country, but his daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, said he'd be particularly touched by the recognition of a tree on Capitol grounds so close to the office where he worked and the colleagues that he loved.

Those colleagues now work alongside his daughter. Roybal-Allard said she's learned more about her late father's accomplishments from their stories.

When a few dozen family, friends and staffers gathered earlier this spring for the tree planting, Roybal-Allard laughed as fellow members of Congress shared their memories of  her father. The ceremony marked a centennial since Roybal's birth and 40 years since he helped create the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He died of respiratory failure in 2005 at age 89.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) described "Eddie" as someone with "deep values, and he acted on them all the time."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Roybal a confidant who would personally drive him from Los Angeles airport to UCLA's hospital to visit his ailing wife.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that there were so few Latinos in Congress when Roybal first suggested creating the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that House Speaker Tip O'Neil asked him if it would meet in a phone booth.

Hoyer said it is fitting that an oak was picked to represent such a steadfast man.

Roybal-Allard, who joined the House just as her father retired, said being recognized on Capitol grounds would have been among his most cherished accolades.

"I can think of no greater tribute than the planting of this red oak tree," she said.

The House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, blessed the tree, and Roybal's daughters and grandchildren turned over a shovel of sod, the scent of wet earth joining blossoming flowers on the breeze.

Ted Bechtol, superintendent of Capitol Grounds for the Capitol Architect, said he tries to find a location and species that reflects the person being recognized, but follows the Capitol's original landscaping plans. A few dozen people or groups have been extended the honor, including Holocaust storyteller Anne Frank.

The original 1874 landscape plans for the Capitol, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, called for a red oak to be planted in that area of the grounds, Bechtol said.

Roybal-Allard said it's fitting that her father's oak is planted between the House side of the Capitol and the Rayburn Building, where his office was located for much of his career.

Roybal-Allard was in her 20s when her father was elected to Congress in 1963, so she didn't get to know much about his work life.

"Had I known that I would someday be in Congress I probably would have spent a lot more time in his office, I would have spent a lot more time here," she said.

They nearly became the first father-daughter duo to serve at the same time, but Roybal retired shortly before his daughter took office.

She is one of 13 female lawmakers who followed a father into the halls of Congress. Pelosi's father represented Maryland in the 1930s and 1940s.

Before she was elected to Congress, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard sits in on a House Committee hearing with her father, Rep. Edward Roybal. He served for 30 years and retired just as his daughter took office. (Courtesy Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard)

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When elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, Roybal was the first Latino to serve on the board since 1881. When elected to Congress in 1962, he was the first Latino from California to serve in Congress since 1879. He helped found and lead the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. His legislative work focused on education, civil rights and health programs.

Along with several buildings in Los Angeles bearing his name, facilities, university buildings and courtrooms across the country are named in his honor. The congresswoman pointed to poignant testimony about her father's 'work on health issues in 1999 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named its main campus in Atlanta for Roybal.

"Then we realized just how much my father has contributed," Roybal-Allard said.

President Clinton awarded Roybal the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014

Roybal-Allard said her father is on her mind often at work.

"I think about him all the time, all the time," she said. "He truly, truly loved the institution and would talk about it and truly believed the House of Representatives was the people's house and that's where you could have the most impact on the lives of people."