Hat Tip: Rachel Kapouchunas, CQ Politics
Richardson, the Democratic state lawmaker from California who on Tuesday won a special election runoff to become the newest member — and the 40th African-American — in the current U.S. House.
Richardson related to CQPolitics.com prior to the runoff in California’s 37th District that she is a child of a mixed-race marriage, with a African-American father and a Caucasian mother who divorced. Richardson said she watched her mother struggle with racism as she raised her and her sister in California during the turbulent 1960s, and recalled as a young child asking her mother why strangers threw eggs at their car and cursed at them while they shopped at stores.
“My mother tried to explain all those things to me, but eventually she just said to me, ‘You should be a person who makes better laws,’” said Richardson, who now is 45 years old. “And that’s what got me since the age of about six of wanting to be a public servant.” She added that her mother exposed her to politics and the news.
Richardson’s career trajectory is symbolic of the political progress made by African-Americans over recent decades. She won the special election to succeed the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, also a black Democrat, who was Richardson’s former boss and whose mentorship helped Richardson launch her own political career in local office and the California Assembly. Millender-McDonald’s death of cancer on April 22 created the vacancy that Richardson will fill after Congress returns to work from its summer recess.
In fact, the special election primary that ensured Richardson’s ultimate victory in the overwhelmingly Democratic 37th put a different spin on racial politics in the “minority-majority” district, which is located in Los Angeles County and is centered on the city of Long Beach.
Black activists who wanted to maintain African-American representation in the district mainly rallied around Richardson. Hispanics, who now make up a larger share of the district’s population but whose voting participation has lagged, found a candidate to champion in Democratic state Sen. Jenny Oropeza.
Running in a single-ballot June 26 primary that included a total of 17 candidates — 11 of them Democrats — Richardson prevailed by 37 percent to 31 percent over Oropeza. Though Richardson fell short of the majority vote needed for an outright victory, the seven-week runoff campaign was a formality: She won Tuesday’s contest with two-thirds of the total vote and a margin of well more than 2-to-1 over the Republican nominee, police sergeant and Iraq war veteran John M. Kanaley.
Though race and ethnicity were inescapable factors, particularly in the primary, Richardson told CQPolitics.com she was “disappointed” that most of the news coverage was focused on these matters rather than the candidates’ views on policy issues.
“I don’t run only from the basis of being African-American,” Richardson said. “That’s who I am, but when I’m running, I’m running to represent the people in my area, whoever they might be.”
Richardson believes her educational background — including a master’s degree in business — and her years working in the private sector combined with her political experience to boost her to a win. Before her six-year stint as a Long Beach City councilwoman, Richardson worked for Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and prior to that, as a field deputy for Millender-McDonald.
Richardson states that public officials should advocate for issues that may not be popular and speak out for those who lack a strong voice in the political process. She will be representing a district that includes some of the state’s most underprivileged communities as well as a large portion of middle-class Long Beach. Minorities make up almost 85 percent of the population in the district: More than two-fifths of the total population is Hispanic and about one quarter of the district’s residents are African-American.
Richardson said she was eager to continue some of the late congresswoman’s legacies, such as her practice of holding “senior briefings” for residents in the district, which offered issue lessons on topics such as elder abuse and identity theft.
Richardson also intends to work with the late congresswoman’s daughter, Valerie McDonald, on remedying disparities in the health care system. McDonald was one of Richardson’s competitors in the special election primary.
Richardson would like to improve the region’s education and transportation systems and also reduce the number of unemployed residents in her district. She said the jobless rate in the 37th hovers close to 14 percent. Richardson also hopes encourage Congress to re-examine trade agreements which she believe do not help domestic unemployment rates.
The war in Iraq and its financial impact on the country are among Richardson’s major concerns.
“I just find it’s ironic that we can find money to fight a war but we can’t find money to help our own people in our communities,” Richardson said. She added that redeploying troops and placing the National Guard back in the states “can’t happen soon enough.”
Richardson likely will take liberal stances on many issues that will make her a reliable vote for the Democratic Party leadership. She already has been strongly critical of President Bush, to whom she has penned letters slamming his education, health care and Iraq policies — which she posted on her campaign Web site.
She hopes to win an assignment to the coveted Ways and Means Committee, but noted she would be pleased to serve on the Transportation or Homeland Security committees.
Richardson is cognizant of the fact she will enter Congress mid-session but said the outpouring of support she’s already received from members has helped her to feel comfortable entering her new position.
In addition, she portrays herself as having a strong work ethic that will help establish her early as an active participant in the lawmaking process.
“What I believe people know about me and respect about me is that I work extremely hard,” Richardson said. “I’m not going to Washington to go to another chicken dinner. That’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here to work.”