Lucille Roybal-Allard is the first woman of Mexican American ancestry to be elected to the U.S. Congress.
She became the 33rd Congressional District's representative in November 1992. The oldest daughter of a political family, Roybal-Allard's father is the highly esteemed California Congressman Edward Roybal. After 30 years of Congressional service, Ed Roybal, often called the dean of California Latino legislators, retired in 1992. Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, a Democrat, previously served in the California State Assembly, representing the 56th District from 1987 to 1992. There she served on a number of influential committees, including the Assembly Rules committee and the very powerful Ways and Means committee, which oversees the distribution of public monies. She was also the chair of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Health and Human Services. Her political style, described as quiet and conciliatory, has contributed to her many legislative victories. She won passage of what some have hailed as landmark environmental legislation, as well as new laws in the areas of domestic violence and sexual harassment. Roybal-Allard is especially proud of her work to empower local communities. As she related in an interview with Diana Martínez: "People often don't know how their lives are impacted by what's going on in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. People can take control of their lives. They can be involved in the political process and make a difference."
Roybal-Allard was born and raised in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, California, a predominately Mexican American area. She attended Saint Mary's Catholic School before she earned her B.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1961. She has warm memories of working on her father's campaign; he was a great example to her, but Roybal-Allard is quick to give equal credit to her mother. "My mom has been a tremendous role model," she revealed to Martínez. "She's really the one who has helped to support and spearhead my father's career. She used to run his headquarters, which used to be our home when we were kids because they couldn't afford a headquarters. So she has always been there, helping him get elected, walking precincts, registering voters, doing all the things that needed to be done. At the same time, she'd be at his side whenever he needed to be at public events. She's worked very hard and is greatly responsible for his success, because it really does take a partnership. In politics it takes the cooperation of your family; otherwise it's almost impossible to succeed."
In an interview with the Civic Center News Source, Roybal-Allard says she remembers working on her father's political campaigns as early as age seven. "We used to fold and stuff and lick stamps. When I got a little bit older they used to call us 'bird dogs,' and we would do voter registration. So I was a bird dog for a few years."
There was a downside to political involvement as well. As Roybal-Allard explained to the Civic Center News Source, "I think for me the main part of it was the lack of privacy and lack of personal identity. When my sister and I would go to a dance where people might not know who we were, we used to decide on a different last name so we could just be anonymous and have fun … I remember as a freshman in college in a political science class I raised my hand to answer a question and after I finished the professor said 'Well, now we know what you're father thinks,' and went on to the next student."
Experiences such as these led Roybal-Allard to the conclusion that she did not want to be a politician. She continued to be involved in her father's campaigns and those of other Latino politicians but chose a career of community and advocacy work for herself. As Roybal-Allard explained to Martínez, her decision to work in community service was a direct result of her upbringing. "When I think you have a role model like both my father and my mother who have really dedicated their lives to the community and have taught human values and understand the value of people, it really has an impact on one's life." She served as the executive director of the National Association of Hispanic CPAs, in Washington, D.C., was the assistant director of the Alcoholism Council of East Los Angeles, and worked as a planning associate for United Way. She enjoyed community work, but as time went on she became more and more frustrated by the barriers created by political policy makers. In 1987 a combination of political opportunity and personal circumstances changed Roybal-Allard's mind about running for office.
Decided to Pursue Political Career
The 1987 election of Assemblywoman Gloria Molina to the newly created seat on the Los Angeles City Council left Molina's assembly position vacant. Roybal-Allard knew Molina through their mutual community activities and she had worked on the assemblywoman's campaign. Molina asked Roybal-Allard to consider running for the vacant assembly position. Her personal situation and the request of her friend led to her decision to run. As she explained to Hispanic, "The timing was just right for me. My children were grown and my husband's job called for a lot of travel." Roybal-Allard's second husband, Edward Allard III, has his own consulting firm whose clients are mostly on the East Coast. Roybal-Allard told Martínez that she received no pressure from her father to run. "I'm sure that his involvement in politics ultimately was one of the reasons … that I wound up getting involved in politics. But, he has always been one that believed that we needed to be independent and make decisions on our own, and if we need guidance he will be there." Once she decided to run for California's State Assembly, she received help from both her father and Gloria Molina. She easily defeated nine other candidates and won with 60 percent of the vote.
As a newly elected Assemblywoman, one of Roybal-Allard's first tasks was to continue the fight against building a prison in East L.A. A tremendous challenge for a new politician considering that her principal foe was the governor of California. In 1986, Governor George Deukmejian proposed a site near a heavily Mexican American residential area as the location for a State prison. Deukmejian tried to steamroll the opposition to get the prison built but had his plans flattened instead. For seven years Roybal-Allard, along with Gloria Molina and other local Latino politicians, worked with grassroots organizations, professional groups, and church leaders to prevent the prison from being built. As an expression of her philosophy of local empowerment, Roybal-Allard assisted community women in organizing "The Mothers of East L.A." which was implacable in its opposition to the prison. A series of legal maneuvers halted construction of the prison but did not kill it. Deukmejian left office in 1990, but the struggle against the prison continued until September 1992 when Governor Pete Wilson signed a bill, amended by Roybal-Allard, which eliminated the funds for the construction of the East L.A. prison. This victory, coming as Roybal-Allard left the California Assembly for the U.S. Congress, gave her cause to reflect on her own feelings and what the political struggle meant to her community. As she stated in a press release, "I started my assembly career when the East Los Angles prison bill was approved and it feels great to be leaving the assembly on this victory note… . This is a victory for the entire community. For seven years our community has marched against the prison, we have fought in the courts and in [California capital] Sacramento—this fight has empowered us. This community was once viewed as powerless. However, the Mothers of East Los Angeles and other community groups have served notice to the state's powerbrokers that ignoring the desires of the East Los Angeles community will no longer be accepted."
The prison was not the only struggle Roybal-Allard waged to improve the quality of life in her district. She fought against a toxic waste incinerator, again aided by the highly respected grass roots organization, Mothers of East Los Angeles. As a result of that struggle Roybal-Allard authored a bill which entitles every community in California to an environmental impact report before a toxic incinerator is built or expanded, a protection that was often omitted prior to her efforts. This bill, along with her strong voting record on the environment, earned her the Sierra Club's California Environmental Achievement Award.
Took Action on Women's Issues
Roybal-Allard has also authored a series of laws which place her in the forefront of women's issues. Included is a requirement that the courts take into consideration an individual's history of domestic violence in child custody cases. She has also worked for legislation requiring colleges to provide information and referrals for treatment to rape victims and enacted two laws that strengthen the legal position of sexual assault victims by redefining the meaning of "consent." Another of her bills requires the California State Bar to take disciplinary action against attorneys who engage in sexual misconduct with their clients. This is the first such law adopted by any state in the country.
For her legislative efforts, Roybal-Allard has received a number of prestigious awards and commendations, including honors from the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, the Asian Business Association, and the Latin American Professional Women's Association. Roybal-Allard was also honored in 1992 by the Mexican American Women's National Association (MANA) in Washington DC. She was presented with the "Las Primaras" Award for "her pioneering efforts in creating a better future for the community through the political process.
Ironically, when Roybal-Allard was first elected to the California Assembly many thought her to be too demure to be effective. But as she explained to Hispanic her conciliatory style is long-range effective, "People may be your enemies today on one issue, but they may be your allies tomorrow on another issue. So I've learned to work well with groups on both sides of the aisle, even with those who I oppose bitterly on particular issues." Her track record on political effectiveness to date has been impressive. A number of community members, and political observers, have speculated that when the senior Roybal left Congress in 1992, his daughter followed in his steps, continuing the Roybal legacy of effective representation.
Further Reading on Lucille Roybal-Allard
Civic Center News Source, January 13, 1992, pp. 1, 8, 12.
Hispanic, March 9, 1992, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1997, p. A3.
News release from the office of Lucille Roybal-Allard, September 16, 1992. Roybal-Allard, Lucille, interview with Diana Martínez, September 2, 1992.