Sen. Holly Mitchell’s ancestors watch over her while she works.
Charcoal and pastel portraits of her great-grandmother, great-great-aunt and great-great-uncle hang above the senator’s desk inside the state Capitol, family heirlooms she discovered two years ago while unpacking an old trunk her great-great-uncle carried across the country as a railroad porter.
“I decided that I would bring them here since that’s my story about how my people got to California,” said Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat who moved from the Assembly to the state Senate following a special election in September.
Mitchell joins the Senate at a time of distress and transition. An FBI investigation of state Sen. Ron Calderon for possible corruption has drawn in other Democrats in the upper house. Sens. Ricardo Lara, Kevin de León, Ted Lieu and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg are all named in an FBI affidavit – published in October by Al Jazeera America – that alleges Calderon accepted $88,000 in bribes from an undercover agent and a former hospital executive.
And with Steinberg entering his last year in office, Senate Democrats are poised to vote next year on who they want as their next leader.
De León and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier have expressed interest. Is Mitchell also making a run for the position?
She wouldn’t directly answer the question, but says she’s flattered by rumors that she’s a contender.
“My hope is that it’s a reflection of folks having the perspective of my leadership and my capacity,” Mitchell said.
The Senate has never had a woman, nor a person of color, as pro tem, so Mitchell would make history if her peers choose her to lead the body.
Mitchell was a key player in budget negotiations this year, advocating for a number of changes she said would help poor families. Mitchell pushed for a 12 percent increase in the monthly grants to Californians on the state’s welfare-to-work program, known as CalWORKs. The budget the governor signed granted a 5 percent increase, which Mitchell characterized as one of her greatest accomplishments in the Legislature.
She also pushed for repealing a rule that makes women who get pregnant while on welfare ineligible for more money based on the baby’s birth. The bill was held in the Senate’s appropriations committee after Gov. Jerry Brown’s Finance Department opposed it on grounds it would cost the state more than $200 million a year.
“The day it was held she called us in, and her entire staff was in tears. Everyone was so committed to this,” said Jessica Bartholow, a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty who worked on the bill.
“She is the leader who, an hour after the bill got held, was pulling the team together to talk about next steps. I’ve never seen that before.”
Mitchell said she will work to get the bill passed in the year ahead because it would help alleviate childhood poverty, a priority issue dating back to her own work as a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty from 1999 to 2001, and on the staff of then-Sen. Diane Watson before that.
Christine Minnehan and Mitchell were Senate staff members together in the 1990s and colleagues at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Minnehan described Mitchell as a dynamic and caring person who adopted a baby while juggling the demands of her career and an interest in running for office. Mitchell’s ambitions haven’t waned since then, Minnehan said.
“My guess is she’s got a pretty serious plan in place for running for the pro tem,” she said.
The baby Mitchell adopted when she was a lobbyist is now a 13-year-old boy, whom Mitchell is raising as a single parent. She described herself as “more like my constituents than I am different.”
“I am a professional woman who is parenting in today’s world,” Mitchell said.
“I live the experience that women do every day. We have to balance, or not, our lives. And I’m sure that real life experience – taking him in to class, doing my parent hours, our conversations about human development, sex ed ... all those real life experiences I live every day impact the lens that I bring to the Legislature. And I think that’s what makes me powerful.”
Power also comes from money, and Mitchell has proved her ability as a political fundraiser. As chairwoman of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, Mitchell this year has directed interest groups to give about $500,000 to caucus organizations at her behest.
When Mitchell is home in her district, she gets around Los Angeles in a 1989 Mercedes sports car that carries the license plate 6FTFOX. She said she first got the plate 25 years ago on a dare from the man she was dating. At the time, she said, she was driving a Volkswagen Fox.
“People love to pull up and say, ‘Are you 6 feet tall?’ ” Mitchell said. “Yes, I’m 6 feet.”
Mitchell grew up in Los Angeles, where her mother was a social worker and her father a civil servant. The family settled in South Central after Mitchell’s great-great-uncle brought his sisters west from Kansas following his career riding the rails as a Pullman porter.
Railroad porters fueled the creation of a black middle class in the decades that followed the end of slavery, according to Larry Tye, author of “Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.”
Porters – some who were once slaves – got steady work waiting on whites in luxurious sleeping cars, Tye wrote. They picked up new knowledge as they carried ideas, music and newspapers from city to city.
When Pullman porters eventually organized in 1925, they became the first African American labor union. Many black porters had the means to help their children get to college, Tye wrote, creating upward mobility for the generations that followed.
The book cites former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown among the well-known descendants of Pullman porters.
Marshall was the court’s first African American justice; Brown was the Assembly’s first African American speaker.
“Behind almost every successful African American, there is a Pullman porter,” the book says.
Mitchell and the great-great-uncle whose visage adorns her office could become the next chapter in that story.
Title: California state senator, 26th district
Resume highlight: CEO of Crystal Stairs, a child care advocacy organization in Los Angeles, before being elected to the state Assembly in 2010. Previously executive director of the Black Women’s Health Project and a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Served on the staff of state Sen. Diane Watson.
Chief goal in 2014: Using state budget surplus to spend more on programs that serve the needy, including child care, health care, dental care and CalWORKS, the state’s welfare-to-work program.
Biggest challenge in 2014: Persuading moderate Democrats in the Senate to support her liberal priorities.