Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, has died at the age of 80.
"She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us," Robert E. Williams, president of the NAACP in Flagler County, told the Associated Press late Sunday. He did not have the details of her death.
Chisholm, who was raised in a black New York City neighborhood and was elected to the U.S. House in 1968, was a riveting speaker who criticized Congress as being too clubby and unresponsive.
"My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency," she told voters.
She went to Congress the same year Richard Nixon was elected to the White House and served until two years into Ronald Reagan's tenure as president.
Newly elected, she was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, which she felt was irrelevant to her urban constituency. In an unheard-of move, she demanded reassignment and got switched to the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Not long afterward she voted for Hale Boggs, who was white, over John Conyers, who was black, for majority leader. Boggs rewarded her with a place on the prized Education and Labor Committee, and she was its third-ranking member when she left.
She ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1972. When rival candidate and ideological opposite George Wallace was shot, she visited him in the hospital — an act that appalled her followers.
And when she needed support to extend the minimum wage to domestic workers two years later, it was Wallace who got her the votes from Southern members of Congress.
Pragmatism and power were watchwords. "Women have learned to flex their political muscles. You got to flex that muscle to get what you want," she said during her presidential campaign.
In her book, Unbought and Unbossed, she recounted the campaign that brought her to Congress and wrote of her concerns about that body: "Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men."
Her leadership traits were recognized by her parents early on, she said. Born Shirley St. Hill in New York City on Nov. 30, 1924, she was the eldest of four daughters of a Guyanese father and a Barbadian mother.
She was married twice. Her 1949 marriage to Conrad Chisholm ended in divorce in February 1977. Later that year she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr. She had no children.
Once discussing what her legacy might be, she said, "I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That's how I'd like to be remembered."
More sad news from California as Rep. Bob Matsui passed away over the weekend.
Matsui, 63, died Saturday night at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington.
Matsui was the third-ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where he was his party's point man on Social Security legislation. He also recently chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
His office said the congressman had been diagnosed several months ago with myelodysplastic disorder, an often-fatal form of bone marrow cancer. The congressman's family said he entered the hospital on Dec. 24 with pneumonia.
Matsui was born in 1941. The following year, his family was among the Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. Decades later, he helped pass legislation apologizing for the internment policy and providing compensation for the survivors.
"True believers in the freedom and justice of the American system, many internees simply could not believe that their country could do this to them," Matsui said in a 1988 speech to the House. "My own father could not even talk about his experience in the Tule Lake Internment Camp until 40 years after his freedom was returned to him."
An attorney, Matsui became a Sacramento City Council member in 1971 and was elected to represent the capital area's solidly Democratic 5th Congressional District in 1978.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will call a special election to fill Matsui's seat. Analysts said Matsui's successor will almost certainly be a Democrat, most likely a member of the Sacramento City Council or state lawmaker.