U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson reflects on retirement after nearly 30 years in Congress

EXCLUSIVE: Congresswoman Johnson recalls her time in the U.S. House of Representatives as her fellow members of Congress share words of praise and admiration for her years-long service.

A Yellow Rose of Texas is completing her full-time political journey in Washington, D.C. Texas Democratic U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announced last week that she is ending her nearly 30 years of service in the United States Congress when the 117th Congressional session ends.   

The 85-year-old congresswoman, who is not running for re-election, tells theGrio that choosing not to continue her career in Congress was no easy choice.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“You know, it’s hard to make that decision when you do something for so many years,” Congressman Johnson shared with theGrio. “The retirement years are defined as a certain age, [but] it is not nearly as defined in something like this (Congress) as [it is with] a regular job. 

The congresswoman, who has never lost an election in her 15 terms in Congress, added, “There [were] times when I thought that maybe if I had somebody to reach a point where I had to leave, it would be better than trying to make the decision to do so,” she added.

TheGrio’s D.C./politics Bureau has interviewed Congresswoman Johnson several times this year. One standout interview was just days after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection in which she exclusively shared a stunning story about her unexpected run-in with an insurrectionist who was lost in the Capitol building. 

While the Capitol insurrection may be a dark moment during Congresswoman Johnson’s many years in Congress, there were far more positive memories. Reflecting on her decades of political service, Johnson said, “I have been very fortunate that I’ve never lost a race and I first started running in 1972. But I also admit that I have worked every day that I’ve been in office to try to make things better across the board.”

Johnson was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972 in a landslide as the first Black woman to win electoral office from her Dallas district. She also served three terms in the Texas Senate and was the only Black woman serving in the body at that time. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as the regional director for the Department of Health Education and Welfare, also serving as the first Black woman to hold the position.

In 1992, Johnson ran in the Democratic primary for the newly created Texas 30th congressional district. She defeated Republican nominee Lucy Cain 72%-25% in the general election. In 1994, she defeated Cain again, 73%-26%.

Portrait of American politician Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, Washington DC, 1990s. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Johnson’s decision to retire was something that she had been considering for a while. With a bright smile on her face, she told theGrio that it is time to focus on her grandchildren and her adult son who grew up while she was in Congress. 

The knit suit wearing, pearl slinging grandmother told theGrio that after her retirement she is most looking forward to family time with her family, especially her very young granddaughters, considering the fact that she had no daughters of her own and is, understandably, looking forward to lavishing on her girls. 

Fellow Texas U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee called Congresswoman Johnson a “tall Texan” when asked by theGrio about her retirement. Jackson Lee said that Johnson “fits well into the definition of a pioneering woman who accepted the challenges of being the only one and the challenges of the difficulty of serving in the early years.”

Johnson served as the first woman to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Her work in Congress has included a laser focus on transportation, technology, science and research. Among many of Johnson’s credits was her role in creating the Tri Caucus that includes the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific Caucus.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

Johnson reflected on when she first entered Congress, acknowledging sitting members who embraced and mentored her, including U.S. Reps. Julian Dixon of California, Rep. Bill Clay of Missouri, and Louis Stokes of Ohio.

“I came wanting to make a difference back home and so I sought out guidance from the experienced ones here,” she said.

“There were giants when I came [to Congress],” Johnson added, shouting out former members Charlie Rangel of New York, John Conyers of Michigan and Cardiss Collins of Illinois.

Congresswoman Johnson said the unique place of the United States Congress, particularly those within the Congressional Black Caucus, is that members, young and old, are able to learn from each other and contribute positive change for the American people.

Johnson said she’s particularly impressed by some of the new guards of Congress like Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, a former school principal who now serves alongside her on the House Committee on Science, Technology and Space. Johnson said she looks forward to seeing Congressman Bowman “rise” in Congress.

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 16: Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) speaks at a press conference on H.R. 40 legislation as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) looks on on Capitol Hill on November 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. During the press conference participants called on the legislation to be passed which would then create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“I tend to observe members in general, but especially young members, when they get elected and come in,” said Johnson. “It is not difficult to see who rises. I have tried to encourage and work with them.”

Another younger member who Johnson sees promise in is U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Johnson said she encouraged Jeffries to seek a leadership position. Jeffries is currently one of the most powerful members of the Democratic Party as the current chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and whose name has been mentioned as a potential member of Congress to succeed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“He’s highly capable,” Johnson said of Jeffries.

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, Congressman Jeffries returned the love, calling Johnson a “trailblazing and historic member of Congress who has done so much for so many during her time in office.” 

“She has personally mentored me with sage advice, guidance and support from the moment I arrived in the House, as she has done for countless others,” Jeffries told theGrio. “The city of Dallas, state of Texas and the nation is a much better place today because of Chairwoman Johnson’s dedicated service.”

House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) talks to reporters following the weekly Democratic Caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on June 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. Congressman Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, told theGrio, “I met Eddie Bernice when she first came to Congress in 1992 and was immediately taken by her sense of compassion and commitment to the people of Dallas. She is and has been an undisputed leader in the United States Congress. 

He added, “Through the simple eloquence of her example she has forced America to do more and to be more for all of its people. We will miss her voice on the great issues of the day.”

In addition to her years-long service to her constituents in Dallas, Texas, Johnson is also a proud member of historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Inc. In a statement to theGrio, the organization’s national president, Dr. Glenda Glover, called Congresswoman Johnson “the epitome of a servant leader, who has dedicated her life to sponsoring impactful and effective legislation as a staunch advocate for education. 

She added, “Congresswoman Johnson has been at the forefront supporting HBCUs and STEM education for decades. Known fondly as the Dean with the Congressional Black Caucus, our many conversations about TSU and the country’s other HBCUs showed her commitment to their sustainability. It was a joy working with her and on behalf of the TSU family, we wish her the very best in retirement.” 

As people are praising Congresswoman Johnson’s work and wishing her well in her next chapter, the retiring congresswoman said she is not yet ready to endorse a successor. 

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