Colleagues Stunned by News of Death

Posted April 23, 2007 at 6:46pm

Several Members expressed shock on Monday over the weekend death of House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), who, to the very end, remained tight-lipped about the cancer that eventually took her life.

It was just over a week ago that Millender-McDonald was granted a leave of absence from her Congressional duties by Democratic leaders, and just five days ago that she informed her colleagues and constituents that she was suffering from cancer.

She died at her home early Sunday morning. She was 68.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Monday, “The dignity with which Congresswoman Millender-McDonald confronted her illness was typical of the graceful manner with which she carried herself on Capitol Hill.”

Though the Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the seven-term Congresswoman had been suffering from colon cancer, Millender-McDonald’s Congressional staff had few details to give Monday as the Clerk of the House took over the operation of the office.

“We will always be Millender-McDonald’s office, but the office is officially operating as of now as the 37th District of California,” Chief of Staff Bandele McQueen said. As of Monday evening, McQueen said the family had not released details about when a funeral would be held. A Democratic aide said the service was expected to take place either Friday or Saturday.

With Millender-McDonald’s death, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), who had been serving as acting chairman during the Congresswoman’s leave of absence, will continue to head the committee until Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) names a permanent replacement. That chairmanship is assigned by the Speaker and does not conform to standard seniority guidelines.

Pelosi’s office declined to answer questions Monday about the selection, saying it was too soon discuss such matters.

However, one Democratic source with knowledge of the committee situation said, “I think the Speaker is very happy with Congressman Brady. Certainly he’s a good soldier and he’s served on that committee and understands the issues and I don’t believe it will go to anyone other than him.”

Brady currently is in a tough race for mayor of Philadelphia — the Democratic primary takes place May 15. Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah (D) also is involved in that race. Polls in the five-way race generally have been showing that Brady is running in the middle of the pack.

If Brady were to win the primary he would be favored to go on to win the November election. And if he were also selected to serve as Millender-McDonald’s permanent replacement, he would have to step down from that post in January when he left Congress.

In recent years, the House Administration Committee has functioned under chairmen who have served less than a full two-year term. After former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) stepped down from the committee in early 2006 when he was implicated in the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) ran the committee for less than a year before the Democrats took control of the House.

As far as timing on the chairmanship appointment goes, the Democratic source noted that Pelosi isn’t in any rush.

“The House Administration Committee isn’t funding a war, it can take a week or two before coming back to take up its business when everyone is ready.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose name also has been thrown around as a possible successor to Millender-McDonald, said Monday that “I assume she’ll ask Mr. Brady to fill in although I don’t know. … But this is not something any of us want to discuss while we’re remembering her.

Lofgren, who chairs the House Administration subcommittee on elections, added that “We’re trying to figure out when the family is planing services so we can make arrangements to attend and to have a suitable tribute to her in the House.”

But individual tributes poured out of Congressional offices on Monday.

“Juanita Millender-McDonald was an outspoken and effective advocate for the residents of her Southern California district,” said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has been working with the committee on his bill to amend the Help America Vote Act. “She was also an ally in my efforts to ensure the accuracy, integrity and verifiability of our electoral system. All Americans will forever be in her debt for her tireless efforts to ensure equal access to the polls.”

“Juanita Millender-McDonald was one of my best friends in the Congress,” Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said in a statement. “We shared a birthplace — the city of Birmingham — and I valued her generosity and her kindness. She rose rapidly in the decade she spent in Washington, and it is her district’s tragedy that she did not live to see all of her goals completed. I will miss her grace and her decency.”

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) noted in a release that “History will record her as the first African American woman to chair a full committee in the United States of House of Representatives; our hearts will revere her as a fearless leader who vowed to enhance our local and global communities through tireless service and timely advocacy.”

Susan Davis contributed to this report.