On Saturday, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas) announced that she will retire at the end of her term, bringing a nearly three-decade career in Congress to a close. Johnson leaves behind a history-making legacy marked by many firsts both in and out of politics.
Johnson started her career not as a politician but as a nurse. She was the first African American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital, a position she held for 16 years before entering politics.
Johnson’s political career began in 1972 when she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, the first African American woman elected to public office in Dallas. While in the Texas House, she chaired the Labor Committee as the first woman to lead a major Texas House Committee. After five years in the Texas House, Johnson was appointed regional director for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare by President Jimmy Carter, the first African American woman to hold the position.
After some time in the private sector, Johnson re-entered electoral politics in 1986, becoming a Texas state senator. During her tenure, she advocated for fair housing, minority-owned businesses, racial equity, education, and healthcare access.
In 1992, Johnson became the first registered nurse elected to Congress. Johnson served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee throughout her tenure in Congress, becoming the first woman and first African American to chair the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. As Subcommittee Chair, Johnson sponsored the Water Resources Development Act, a bill that was vetoed by President George W. Bush. Congress subsequently overrode Bush’s veto, the only time this occurred in his presidency.
Johnson also served on the Committee on Science and Technology, which she currently chairs. As the first woman and first African American to chair the committee, Johnson’s priorities were climate change, STEM education and inclusiveness, and maintaining American leadership in science and technology. Indeed, Johnson’s tenure occurred at a time when the United States’ dominant position in technology has become increasingly challenged and a key part of her work as committee chair is passing legislation to improve US competitiveness vis-a-vis China. While the “China bill” currently remains in limbo, if it passes it could end up forging a major part of her congressional legacy.
The announcement of Johnson’s retirement was met with tributes to her legacy from congressional colleagues. “Chairwoman Johnson has made progress, as a lawmaker with a track record of success for America’s children and future, including to promote STEM education, ensure diversity and inclusion in science and combat the climate crisis with a firm focus on innovation,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement.
“Whether you are from Dallas or not, nearly every Texan has benefited in some way from the work of Congresswoman Johnson,” said Rep. Colin Allred, a fellow Democrat from Dallas. “Her legacy is remarkable, and I can tell you firsthand from our shared work on the Transportation Committee, that no one works harder for their constituents.”
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