In 2007 Laura Richardson won a special election to the United States House of Representatives to fill the seat held by her late boss, Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald of California. Richardson, who had served on the Long Beach city council and in the California state assembly, spent nearly three terms in the House before redistricting and ethics investigations cut her career short.
Laura Richardson was born April 14, 1962, in Los Angeles, California to Lawrence (Larry) J. Richardson and Maryann Fritschler. Her father Larry worked as an educator, and her mother, Maryann, was a teamster for a local trucking company. Her parents divorced when she was young, and Richardson and her sister, Leslie, were raised by their mother. The family’s brief time on government assistance and encounters with racism sparked Richardson’s interest in using the political system to improve living conditions in California. Richardson married police officer Anthony Batts in 1997, but the couple later divorced.1
Richardson attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1980 to 1981. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1984, with a BA in political science. Richardson later received her MBA from the University of Southern California in 1996. She worked a variety of private sector jobs—as a marketing director of a document managing company, the owner of a customized clothing company, and a teacher—before she became senior staff in Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald’s southern California district office. Richardson also worked as an aide to California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.2
In 1996 Richardson sought the Democratic nomination for a seat in the California assembly but lost in the primary. Four years later, in 2000, she won a spot on the Long Beach city council, having narrowly defeated a popular local sports star by a scant six votes. She served on the city council for six years before she was elected to the California assembly in 2006.3
On April 21, 2007, Representative Millender-McDonald died after a long battle with cancer. Richardson was one of 18 candidates to run in the June 26 Democratic primary election for the vacant House seat.4 The district covered low and middle-income sections of Long Beach, Los Angeles, Compton, and Carson, including coastal areas known for shipping and manufacturing.5 With an 85 percent minority population, the district was primarily Hispanic.6 The three top candidates included Richardson, Millender-McDonald’s daughter Valerie McDonald, and Hispanic state senator Jenny Oropeza.7 Richardson’s support came primarily from the African-American community, organized labor, and the abortion rights group EMILY’s list. She prevailed with a plurality of 37 percent of the vote. In the heavily Democratic district, Richardson won the August 21 special election with 67 percent of the vote over Republican John Kanaley, a Long Beach police officer.8 Richardson was sworn into the 110th Congress (2007–2009) on September 4, 2007.
Facing re-election to the full term only months later, Richardson won the 2008 Democratic primary easily with 74 percent of the vote. Her primary opponents—college professor Peter Mathews and local newspaper editor Lee Davis—ran as write-in candidates in the general election. Richardson prevailed with 75 percent of the vote. In the 2010 general election, she easily defeated Republican columnist and author Star Parker with 68 percent of the vote.9
In the House, Richardson inherited Millender-McDonald’s assignment to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where she sat for the duration of her career. She was also appointed to a seat on the Science and Technology panel but traded that post for a seat on the Homeland Security Committee in the 111th and 112th Congresses (2009–2013). In early 2010, Richardson was appointed chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response. In late 2010, she was elected to the influential House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which determined party strategy.10
Road and cargo issues were a primary focus for Richardson. In 2008 she passed a law to name a 10-mile stretch of California’s Route 91 in Los Angeles County after Millender-McDonald. The highway had been part of the late Representative’s California assembly district and her House district throughout her career.11 But the district was also known for its traffic congestion. In March 2010, Richardson testified at an Appropriations Committee hearing where she implored her colleagues for more infrastructure funding. She pointed to a bridge in her district, over which 10 percent of cargo entering the United States traveled.12 “The Gerald Desmond Bridge is the de facto trade highway gateway to the Nation,” she noted. “However, the bridge is now reduced to wearing a diaper . . . to catch concrete and debris that falls daily from its underside.”13 The bridge eventually received federal funding for a full replacement.14
From her position on the Homeland Security Committee—especially as chair of the Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response—she focused on port security. In 2012 two of her measures to improve security at U.S. import/export centers were included in the SMART Port Security Act, which had bipartisan support. The first measure provided funding for local and state government agencies to provide security services in ports. The second gave administrators more flexibility to use funds to repair or replace security equipment. “Ports are the first line of defense at our sea borders and serve vital national interests,” she observed.15 The bill passed 402 to 21 in the House, but died in the Senate.16 In 2012, however, she obtained Department of Transportation grants to increase port security in Long Beach and Los Angeles.17
The California House delegation faced several changes going into in the 2012 election cycle. In 2010 voters approved Proposition 14 creating an open primary where each candidate appeared on a single ballot. The top two candidates in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, would move on to the November general election. Additionally, an independent citizens’ commission was tasked with redrawing California’s congressional district boundaries irrespective of an incumbent lawmaker’s home address or party affiliation.18 Richardson found herself facing off with Representative Janice Hahn—a first term Democratic incumbent—in a primary to represent a new, primarily Hispanic district stretching from San Pedro north through Carson, Compton, north Long Beach, Lynwood, and South Gate.19
Richardson was further hampered by House Committee on Ethics investigations into her personal finances. Shortly after her first election journalists uncovered financial struggles Richardson had faced in the past, including a foreclosure on a home she owned in Sacramento. In July 2010, an Ethics Committee report cleared her of any wrongdoing in her financial disclosure responsibilities.20 Two years later, however, the Ethics Committee investigated allegations that Richardson compelled her congressional staff to work on her 2010 campaign and that she obstructed the committee’s investigation. In August, the Ethics Committee recommended a reprimand and a fine to which the House concurred.21
In the election, Hahn, who came from a storied Southern California political family, received an endorsement from the Los Angeles Times.22 Hahn came in first place in the open primary with a 20-point victory over Richardson, who placed second. In the general election, Hahn gained the official endorsement from the California Democratic Party; Richardson was backed by the Congressional Black Caucus. Hahn went on to win the general election with 61 percent of the vote.23
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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