Rep. Maxine Waters
Rep. Barbara Lee
Fmr. Speaker Karen Bass
Council Mbr. Jan Perry
D.A. Kamala Harris
Fmr. Supvr. Yvonne V. Burke
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
“Women Pioneers in (California) Politics.”
(As a tribute to the Black Women Who have pioneered the way in California, as public officials, “Legends” will re-run “Women Pioneers” in closing out the final week of Women’s Month).
Black women have always played a significant role in California politics, some indirectly with lasting effects. Pioneers like Biddy Mason (who helped establish the First African Methodist Episcopal Church); Georgia Robinson (the first Black woman to become a Los Angeles Police Department officer); and Marguerite Justice (the first Black woman appointed to the LAPD Board of Commissioners) have paved the way leaving giant footsteps for generations of Black women to follow not only in Los Angeles and California but throughout the nation. For more than a decade, three Black women have continuously represented Los Angeles congressional districts.
FAY ALLEN was the first Black woman to be appointed to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1939. Two years before, she had failed but she never gave up. Learning from her experience, she conducted an independent campaign and was endorsed by labor and the Federation for Civic Betterment, which at the time was labeled radical by the mainstream media. Allen advocated standardization, revision and modernization of the school curriculum, an extension of education beyond the school age, and the election of school board members by district. Her tenure on the board was surrounded by controversy even though she had the support of L.A. Teachers’ Federation, the L.A. Democratic Central Committee and the L. A. Industrial Union Council. The controversy dominated her time on the board and it continued after she left and beyond
YVONNE B. BURKE has been a fixture in Los Angeles politics over 30 years and has chalked up a string of ‘firsts’ along the way in a remarkable political career. Since she graduated from USC School of Law in 1956, she has been a significant force in Southern California politics. In her first ten years in private practice she affected public policy through her involvement in desegregating the local real estate board. Burke’s stint on the Mc Cone Commission highlighted her profile, which led her to run for the California State Assembly. She won, but her early years in politics were filled with many of the indignities associated with a Black woman in an environment dominated by White males. One of her significant achievements in the legislature was instituting the relocation assistance program for people whose property is taken by a governmental entity–eminent domain–and was referred to as ‘Braithwaite Rights.’ Burke was the first Black woman from California elected to Congress, and also the first to have been appointed and then elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, where she served for 16 years.
MAXINE WATERS (D- 35th)–is recognized as one of the most powerful representatives in Congress, a fighter for her constituents. She goes where the action is and never retreats from a challenge in defending those whom she represents. When speculation arose about her leaving Congress and running to be a supervisor she stated, “Congress is where I belong because it is where I believe I can do the maximum good for the most people in L.A. and the nation.” She has an unblemished record as a strong advocate for progressive politics at the state and national level. First serving in the California State Assembly for 14 years, she has been in Congress for the past 17 years. Waters has successfully authorized, and had signed into law in California, the first child abuse prevention legislation, the divestment of funds from companies doing business in South Africa that eventually led to the dismantling of apartheid, and she created the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center in South Los Angeles. In Congress, she has passed legislation to return “Katrina” victims to housing in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans and has continued to be a leader for increased funding for HIV and AIDS. She founded the “Out of Iraq” caucus to focus on ending the war in Iraq and her work has brought changes in South Africa, the Caribbean, Haiti and the African Diaspora in general. Congresswoman Waters has never been afraid to speak up and speak out to protect the weak and the vulnerable–for jobs, peace and justice and to make the country stronger, more secure, more equal and more prosperous. According to Waters, at this moment, her place is in the House of Representatives of the United States.
DIANE WATSON (D-33rd)–brings an array of experience and a commitment to excellence in managing the affairs of her constituents. Her background as an educator and a former ambassador adds to her resume as a “states-woman.” She first went to Congress in 2001, having been an ambassador, a state senator and a school board member, and since then she has been overwhelmingly re-elected by her constituents in the 33rd district.
In Congress, Watson’s work committee assignments include the Foreign Affairs Committee; the Oversight and Government Reform Committee; the Congressional Entertainment Industries Caucus; the Congressional Korea Caucus; and the U.S.-UK Caucus. She has been a strong voice for military withdrawal from Iraq and expanding welfare coverage. In 2008, Watson played a key role in securing $2.5 million in grants for job training in the entertainment industry trades at West Los Angeles College (WLAC), located in her district. Her commitment to education is beyond question and as a former ambassador, she authored HR 2553, “the Public Diplomacy Resource Centers Act of 2007,” designed to provide diplomats abroad with additional tools to show the world the best of American society. In the 110th Congress in the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Watson helped to redeem the status and prestige that the United States had lost around the world in recent years. She said, “While U.S. foreign policy clearly is a key factor in how we are viewed abroad, an important part of regaining our rightful leadership role is to find more effective ways to let the world know who was are as Americans and what we stand for.”
LAURA RICHARDSON (D-37th)–While running for Congress, Richardson won a special election in a landslide victory over her nearest rival by a two-to-one margin. That gave her the mandate to continue representing her district with the same enthusiasm, as her predecessor for whom she had been a field deputy. Richardson has the distinction of serving as Long Beach City councilmember, state assemblywoman and Member of U.S. Congress all in a 12-month period. As assemblywoman, she won the first battle in a long fight to protect workers from excessive indoor heat with the passage by the State Assembly of AB 1045. And when she ascended to Congress, she had a first-hand knowledge of the issues facing the constituents of the 37th district. As a local and state leader, Richardson has a strong record on education and public safety having successfully fought for more police officers, crime prevention, after school programs and job training.
BARBARA LEE (D-9th)–was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1998 with 67% of the vote to finish her predecessor’s term and was re-elected by 82% the vote. She is the first woman to represent the 9th congressional district and was the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Lee has the unique distinction of being the only person among the 535 Members of Congress (the House and the Senate) to vote against giving the President the authorization to use military force following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. She represents one of the most progressive districts in the nation, which includes Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, Emeryville, Albany, and Alameda. Prior to her service in the Congress, Lee served three consecutive terms in the California State Assembly (1990-1996) and then one in the State Senate (1996-1998). She has served on the House Banking and Financial Services Committees and the Committee on International Relations. She is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Lee has worked to strengthen economic development in the Bay Area by supporting the conversion of local military bases in Oakland and Alameda, and has also worked with the Bank of America, the Economic Development Administration and the Department of Commerce to create the Defense Conversion Revolving Loan Fund. She has worked to expand Bay Area trade with Africa and has fought for federal funds to improve the quality of education programs. Her accomplishments in education include securing grants for teacher recruitment in the Oakland Unified School District, working to close the “digital divide” and securing $7.5 million in federal and state funds for math and science education programs at the Chabot Observatory and Science Center in Oakland.
KAREN BASS (A-47th)–as the nation’s first African American Speaker of the Assembly, she has embarked on a path of service not only for her 47th district constituents, but also for the people of California. One of her strengths is her availability and accessibility to those whom she represents. As the Assembly member, Bass’ district includes Culver City, West Los Angeles, Westwood, Cheviot Hills, Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw District, and portions of Koreatown and South Los Angeles. She is the second consecutive assembly member from the 47th District to become Speaker and has previously served in several leadership roles including Majority Floor Leader in the 2007-2008 legislative session, and as Majority Whip for the 2005-2006 session. Bass considers Foster Care Reform to be one of her top priorities and has helped secure $82 million in one of the past state budgets for Foster Care Reform, the largest increased allocation in more than a decade, and has developed new laws to help improve that system. Bass has commissioned a report to research the basic demographic profile of Black Californians including the basic social and economic conditions and the State of Black California report which included a statewide organizing effort to involve Black Californians in identifying their concerns and making legislative recommendations.
JAN PERRY–She has represented the ninth district on the Los Angeles City Council over the past eight years with a focus on improving public safety, park and recreation facilities and increasing services for the homeless. She recently kicked off her re-election campaign for a third term noting the significant challenges that her district, and indeed the city, faces with its aging infrastructure and under-developed transportation system. Representing_the ninth district–which includes downtown–has always had a sense of longevity. Since the 60s, Perry has been only the third African American to lead the Great Ninth District, as it is affectionately referred to, and it is one of the most dynamic, culturally diverse districts in the City of Los Angeles. According to Perry, “I have fought to make improvements in all of these areas and will continue to push these priorities forward and work to continue our common mission of improving the overall quality of life in our diverse neighborhoods.”
KAMALA HARRIS: is in her second term as the first Black woman to be elected district attorney of San Francisco and is a rising star in the political and legal communities. As one of the state co-chairs of the Obama campaign, Harris has a political wind at her back and she is using it. She has filed papers to run for the office of the Attorney General of California. In taking this step, she talked about bringing an experienced prosecutor’s perspective to the unique challenges of public safety and the need for new ideas in our criminal justice system. Harris said, “I’ve spent my entire professional life in the trenches as a courtroom prosecutor. I started my career out of law school as a prosecutor in the Alameda DA’s Office and I can tell you, from the frontlines, we need tough new ideas for strengthening our criminal justice system in California.” She is keenly aware of the myriad of problems facing Californians–from distressed homeowners to families whose neighborhoods are under siege. As D.A. of California’s second largest city, she has brought new ideas on how to fight street gangs, go after subprime lenders and others responsible for the current financial crisis. As attorney general, one of her priorities will be reforming the our prison system and closing the revolving door that simply recycles criminals in and out of decent neighborhoods.
DORIS DAVIS–In 1973, Davis was elected mayor of Compton, the first Black woman to be elected mayor of a metropolitan city in the United States. She had previously made history in 1965 when she was elected as city clerk, defeating the incumbent. Davis had come to the Los Angeles area from Chicago where she had been an elementary school teacher. She served only one term as mayor and to date, has been the only woman to serve as Compton’s mayor. She ran unsuccessfully for the state assembly before retiring.
RITA WALTERS–She was the first Black woman to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council, as her predecessor was the first Black man. She arrived at city hall via the school board and had a keen insight for the educational well being of L.A’s children. Her tenure on the city council never involved any fanfare or high profile activities; she was a quiet warrior. Whenever she got hold of an issue, she stuck with it to the end. One of Walters’ lasting legacies was her effort to keep the Recreation Center off First Street North, which she followed through with a motion before the Los Angeles City Council that called for moving the planned site for the Children’s Museum from the corner of Temple and Alameda streets to the corner of Temple and Judge John Aiso streets. It remained as a tribute to her
WILMER CARTER–she scored an upset victory by defeating the son of a seasoned veteran, the entrenched challenger, to become the first Black legislator from the Inland Region. Carter served 16 years on the Rialto Board of Education before being elected as the assemblywoman for the 62nd district in 2006. Her San Bernardino district includes the city of San Bernardino, Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Bloomington and Muscoy. She has a high school named after her, the first of its kind in the Inland Empire named after a living Black woman. She is a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus and her focus leans towards education.
JUANITA MILLENDER-MCDONALD–was a very effective representative for the 37th District, which entailed Carson, Compton, Long Beach, Signal Hill and a portion of Los Angeles. She had just been re-elected for her sixth term to Congress cruising to a comfortable victory over her closet challenger when tragedy struck and she passed away. However, her tenure in Congress stood as a testament to her tireless efforts on behalf of her constituents. In her final term in Congress, Millender-McDonald had been appointed as chair of the powerful House Administration Committee, which oversaw the operation of the entire House of Representatives. It was the final act of a majestic career.