Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a seven-term congresswoman from southern California, died early Sunday of cancer. She was 68.
Millender-McDonald died at her home in Carson, said her chief of staff, Bandele McQueen.
The congresswoman had asked for a four- to six-week leave of absence from the House last week to deal with her illness. McQueen couldn’t immediately provide details on what form of cancer Millender-McDonald had, but said she had been receiving hospice care.
“Juanita Millender-McDonald was a trailblazer, always advocating for the full participation of all Americans in the success and prosperity of our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “The dignity with which she faced her illness was an indication of the determination with which she always served the people of her district.”
Millender-McDonald represented a heavily Democratic southern California district that includes Compton, Long Beach and parts of Los Angeles.
“She was a champion for the consumer and fought injustice wherever she saw it. She always valued public service and served her state and nation with grace and honor,” said California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, who served with her in the California state Legislature.
Millender-McDonald is the second member of Congress to die this year of cancer. Republican Rep. Charles Norwood Jr. of Georgia died in February after battling cancer and lung disease.
“Many of us are very saddened by her death, and in some respects stunned by it,” said state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has worked with Millender-McDonald in different capacities for more than two decades. “She knew about the issues of justice and injustice, and carried that banner wherever she went.”
The congresswoman’s son, R. Keith McDonald, had received “temporary emergency release” from a 41-month prison term after his mother had surgery in May 2005, according to the Los Angeles Times. The former Los Angeles water district official was convicted of extortion in a contracts case. Millender-McDonald was never implicated.
The congresswoman, a native of Birmingham, Ala., worked on former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s unsuccessful 1982 gubernatorial campaign and other local races as a volunteer before getting elected to the Carson City Council in 1990.
She went on to serve in the California state Assembly, and in 1996 sought a U.S. House seat during a special election to replace Rep. Walter Tucker III, who had been convicted of taking bribes while mayor of Compton and of cheating on his taxes.
She won the special election, and in March beat out Tucker’s wife, Robin, in a primary that featured nine Democrats. She won a full House term in November 1996 and has subsequently won re-election easily.
Millender-McDonald has recently worked on issues including election reform and opposing the genocide in Darfur. She drew national attention in 1996 when she took then-CIA director John Deutch to Watts to address the community following a newspaper report alleging that profits from domestic sales of crack-cocaine were funneled to the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua.
This year, Millender-McDonald became chair of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees operations of the House and federal election procedures.
She is survived by her husband, James McDonald, Jr., and five adult children.
Under California election procedures, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has 14 days to set a date for a special election to fill the seat.