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Juanita Millender-McDonald, 68, chair of US House committee

Juanita Millender-McDonald represented part of Southern California for seven terms. Juanita Millender-McDonald represented part of Southern California for seven terms. (file/associated press 2005)

WASHINGTON -- US Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald, a seven-term California Democrat who chaired the Committee on House Administration, died of cancer yesterday at her home in Carson, Calif. She was 68.

She had revealed the illness last week and said she would take a leave of absence from her House duties. Robert Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, assumed interim leadership of the administration committee.

Representative Millender-McDonald, whose heavily Democratic 37th Congressional District includes Long Beach, the industrial suburbs of Carson and Compton, and parts of South Central Los Angeles, was a former teacher in the Los Angeles public schools.

She served on the Carson City Council and in the California State Assembly before running for Congress in December 1995 in a special election to replace Walter Tucker III, a two-term Democratic congressman who had been convicted of extortion and tax fraud as mayor of Compton and sentenced to 27 months in prison.

She won the special election and in March 1996 defeated Tucker's wife in a nine-candidate primary. She won her first full House term that November and subsequently was reelected by wide margins. Despite speculation about her health -- she had major surgery in 2005 -- she won last year with more than 82 percent of the vote. Her staff declined to divulge details about her illness, even after her leave of absence.

After her election to the House, she was appointed to a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she dealt with issues of importance to the Long Beach port, including international trade and security. Women's health and workplace issues also were a priority.

Shortly before the 1996 election, she sponsored an inquiry into rumors that the CIA had led a conspiracy to flood Los Angeles with crack cocaine to bankroll Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s. A town hall meeting she arranged turned raucous when John Deutch, then CIA director, tried to address a hostile audience in the Watts district of Los Angeles.

In January 2005, Nancy Pelosi, a fellow California Democrat who was then minority leader, appointed her to the House Administration Committee. When Democrats gained control of the House last fall, Representative Millender-McDonald became the first African-American member to chair the committee, which has jurisdiction over salaries and expenses for committees and staff, benefit and retirement matters, and federal elections. After the 2004 election, she investigated allegations of voting irregularities and voter disenfranchisement in Ohio.

"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 Pelosi said in a statement last night.

Representative Millender-McDonald was born in Birmingham, Ala., and received an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Redlands and a master's degree in educational administration from California State University at Los Angeles. She worked toward a doctorate in public administration.

Before running for office, she worked as a teacher and editor-writer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and was manuscript editor for Images, a textbook designed to enhance the self-esteem of young women. She later became director of gender-equity programs for the school district, and she was appointed to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. She was elected to the Carson City Council in 1990 and the State Assembly in 1992.

In the House, she compiled a liberal voting record. She spoke out against genocide in Cambodia and Darfur and worked with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Ambassador John Miller on human trafficking and women's rights issues.

In October 2004, her son Keith McDonald, a Los Angeles water district official, was convicted of extortion in a case involving municipal contracts. In 2006, he cited her illness as a reason for a furlough, and a district court judge granted him a six-month early release. Representative Millender-McDonald was not implicated in the matter.

She is the second member of Congress to die of cancer this year. Charles Norwood, a Republican from Georgia, died in February.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Millender-McDonald leaves her husband, James McDonald Jr. of Carson; four other children; and five grandchildren.

Under California election procedure, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has 14 days to set a date for a special election.