Latina Politician in California Who Championed Health Issues Dies

A Hispanic state Legislature from California facing re-election next month died after a five-month long illness.

California Sen. Jenny Oropeza, 53, known as a champion of health and environmental issues in the state, had missed most of this year’s Legislative session because of her illness.

Her press secretary, Ray Sotero, said Thursday the senator died Wednesday night of complications from a blood clot she developed in her abdomen in May. He says the clot led to a common side effect, a buildup of fluid in her lungs that affected her breathing. 

He said she seemed to be recovering even though doctors had prohibited her from flying to Sacramento.

"I was told she was getting better and feeling like her old self as recently as a couple days ago. Then she had this setback," Sotero said. "It was a real shock to everybody."

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement today hailing her commitment to leadership and public health, and said she “will be missed.” He said flags at the capitol will fly at half-staff.

“As she battled her own health issues, she remained dedicated to her constituents by fighting to improve the environment, transportation, cancer prevention and the lives of veterans,” the governor said. 

Oropeza was elected to the Senate in 2006 after serving six years in the state Assembly. She was diagnosed and successfully treated for liver cancer in 2004, and her health battles influenced her legislative priorities, Sotero said.

Oropeza was looking forward to winning re-election on Nov. 2 and returning to Sacramento for a second, four-year Senate term, Sotero said. She was elected to the 40-member chamber in 2006 after serving six years in the state Assembly.

In the general election, she faced Republican John Stammreich in Los Angeles County's heavily Democratic coastal 28th Senate District, which includes Torrance and Redondo Beach.

She will remain on the ballot and will be declared the winner if she receives a majority of the vote, said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would then call a special election to fill the vacancy.

The Republican will take the office if he wins, and no special election will be needed.

Among her bills that took effect this year were measures increasing fines for elder abuse, regulating a harmful air pollution chemical and requiring school bus drivers to turn off their idling engines while parked near schools. An Oropeza bill taking effect next year will prohibit local governments from writing their own vehicle codes and keeping money collected in traffic tickets.

Other senators carried her bills in her absence.

Democratic legislative leaders praised Oropeza's service.

"She carried on her responsibilities through great physical challenge, which is an inspiration for all of us," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a statement.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, called her "a leader of conscience and compassion."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.