Stepping out of Dad's Shadow
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard has followed in her legendary father’s footsteps all the way to the top.
What’s a name worth? In politics, it can be as valuable as magic, particularly
if your father was a distinguished legislator still revered by his former
constituents. But it can also cast a long shadow.United States Representative
Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), daughter of former Congressman Edward
R. Roybal, dismisses the notion that the Roybal name is a passport to political
success, although she acknowledges that being a Roybal hasn’t hurt her
She chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, of which her father was a founder, and she serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where her father was a subcommittee chairman. All of which makes Roybal-Allard—the first Mexican American woman elected to the U.S. Congress—the highest-ranking Hispanic legislator in the House of Representatives.
“She’s very much her own person,” says Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California), her predecessor on the 17-member Hispanic Caucus. “It won’t be long before people begin to say that Ed Roybal is the father of Lucille instead of referring to Lucille as the daughter of Ed Roybal.” Yet, despite her rise to national prominence, Roybal-Allard makes it her first priority to represent her Los Angeles community.
From her 33rd Congressional District office at the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, in the heart of her father’s old constituency, she acknowledges that what she does for that primarily Hispanic district may have a residual effect on Hispanics everywhere, but she doesn’t want people thinking she’s the Latina prodigy in Congress.That sets her apart from her father, who was once fourth in congressional seniority and a powerful deal-maker.
“I’m no longer Ed Roybal’s daughter in Congress, and no one makes the comparison anymore,” Roybal-Allard, 58, says. “When I first got there, they expected me to be just like my dad—pick up the phone and get something done.”Born in Los Angeles’ Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights to second-generation American parents, Roybal-Allard was exposed to politics at an early age. Her father was the first Hispanic American elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and her mother was active in his campaigns.
She remembers that politics was usually on the menu at the dinner table.
“People didn’t go to City Hall in those days, not when many of them lived only a few doors from our house,” she recalls. “Sometimes they’d be lined up at our door waiting to speak to Dad. We would overhear some of the conversations, and [afterward] Father would talk to us about the issues and the importance of helping people with their problems.”
Roybal-Allard says she experienced discrimination through the taunts of the city’s Anglos. Today, she speaks Spanish haltingly, the result, she says, of being forced to speak only English at school.
“I remember authority figures telling us one thing and our parents telling us it was the teachers who were wrong, that Spanish was a beautiful language and part of our culture and something we should be proud of,” Roybal-Allard recalls. “It’s such a loss and makes my support of bilingual education even stronger today.”
In her teen years, Roybal-Allard dreamed of a show-business career in movies or music. Later, she worked as a department-store clerk and for nonprofit organizations. For a while she was a homemaker and raised two children, now both lawyers in Los Angeles. The call to enter politics didn’t come until age 46—and not from her parents, who tried to talk her out of it, she says, but from state political activists. They wanted her to run for a state assembly post. When she said yes, “I shocked everyone including myself,” she recalls. After serving three terms in the California State Assembly, Roybal-Allard ran for her father’s congressional seat when he retired in 1992. Three years later, she was elected chairwoman of the Hispanic Caucus, leaping over more senior colleagues. In the last session of Congress, she also served as chairwoman of the 29-member California Democratic congressional delegation.
“She’s very good at knowing when to step forward on issues [that will result in] progress at the end of the day,” Becerra says. “Another of her skills is in getting members involved through the delegation of authority.” He credits her with getting off to a good start as a caucus leader and having a knack for building consensus. Roybal-Allard has never lost an election. She has established her own political personality, tailored to her own individual convictions and today’s political realities, she says. In her view, the Latino movement has graduated from the politics of protest to the politics of inclusion. It’s no longer about howling at the door and shouting in the streets, she says. Hispanics have garnered strength from their numbers and are finally getting the attention that their emerging political power demands, she says.
“Latinos in the past have been placed in a very narrow slot, [one that
assumes] that we only care about immigration and bilingual education when
the reality is that all the issues of American society are also our issues,”
These days, Roybal-Allard is in a difficult row with the caucus’ three Hispanic Republican legislators, who think the caucus is too soft on Cuban leader Fidel Castro and too closely aligned with the Democratic Party’s agenda. As GOP Representative Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) says, the caucus agenda begs “better time spent elsewhere.”
Criticism doesn’t seem to faze Roybal-Allard, however. She believes the caucus has shown its worth on legislation affecting the Hispanic community in spite of its internal disagreements. “I’m disappointed, but I don’t think it has weakened us in the sense that we are not able to make a difference or have an impact,” Roybal-Allard says of the infighting.
How she prevails in this role of leadership will define her legacy, which, fair or not, will be measured against the standards set by her father. So far, Roybal-Allard has acquired a reputation for providing effective and tactful leadership in the garrulous group as well as in the Congress. While she rarely displays her father’s feistiness, she’s not saccharine, either.
Carlos D. Conde