State Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Marina del Rey), whose legislative career spanned more than two decades and who was seen by her supporters and colleagues as a staunch supporter of the environment, women’s health and education, died Oct. 20 in Long Beach. She was 53.
The senator had been ill for several months after an abdominal blood clot was discovered during a medical examination this spring. No official cause of death has been determined as of press time.
A cancer survivor, Oropeza began her political career in Long Beach, winning a seat on that city’s school board in 1988. She later was elected as the first Latina on the Long Beach City Council before turning to state politics.
Oropeza was elected to the state Assembly in 2000 and six years later she won the opportunity to represent the state’s 28th Senate District, a largely coastal area that includes Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Venice and Mar Vista.
“Her commitment to public service was unbelievable,” Ray Sotero, Oropeza’s communications director, told The Argonaut. “One of her primary goals was to give a voice to the voiceless.”
The senator was laid to rest Monday, Oct. 25 at Church of Our Fathers in Cypress.
Oropeza, who was seeking re-election in the Nov. 2 election, will remain on the ballot.
Her legislative record reflects the causes in which she believed the most, said Sotero. One of her signature bills outlawed smoking in cars where children are present. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 4, which would have outlawed smoking in state parks and on beaches, but the bill was vetoed last year.
State and county lawmakers, as well as a prominent congresswoman, issued their condolences after learning of Oropeza’s passing,
Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who shared a coastal district with Oropeza, touched on the senator’s work on social justice matters.
“I am in deep sadness upon hearing the news. My friend and my senator, Jenny Oropeza, was a remarkable individual and champion for children, seniors, the poor, and those without voices in government,” Lieu said. “Sen. Oropeza wrote some of the most progressive laws in the nation in the areas of health care, consumer protection, and the environment. She has made the life of so many Californians better through her long and successful history of advocacy and public service.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed a number of Oropeza’s bills into law, also issued a statement following the senator’s passing.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sen. Oropeza. She was a true public servant who positively impacted the lives of all Californians. Jenny was a champion for improving public health and her leadership will be missed,” Schwarzenegger said. “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.
“On behalf of all Californians, Maria (Shriver) and I send our deepest condolences to Jenny’s colleagues, friends and loved ones as they mourn this loss.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Westchester) offered her condolences to Oropeza’s family and friends on the untimely loss. “The South Bay has lost an effective and passionate advocate today with the untimely passing of state Sen. Jenny Oropeza. I join Sen. Oropeza’s family, friends, staff and constituents in mourning her loss,” Waters wrote.
County Supervisor Don Knabe remembered how he was involved with Oropeza in a joint effort to bring the Metro Green Line light rail extension to Los Angeles International Airport.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my dear friend, Sen. Jenny Oropeza, one of the most generous and well respected members of the state Senate. I had the honor of working with Sen. Oropeza at every level of elected office she held and saw firsthand her dedication to public service,” he said.
Waters recalled the senator’s battle with liver cancer, which went into remission in 2005.
“Sen. Oropeza was a fighter. She bravely battled liver cancer while carrying out her legislative duties, and never let it deter her. In fact, she met her illness head on, beat it, and went back to the state Capitol to introduce legislation to expand cancer prevention,” the congresswoman recalled. “I admire her tenacity and her dedication to her constituents, and I am very saddened that she is no longer with us.”
Waters also called attention to Oropeza’s advocacy for the constituents of her district, which includes some of the same communities that Waters represents in Playa del Rey and near LAX.
“On issues ranging from cleaning up LAX to the preservation of the Ballona Wetlands, to upgrading transportation infrastructure, among others, she got results for her district,” the congresswoman said. “Indeed, with our respective districts overlapping in LAX, Westchester and Marina del Rey, we often advocated for similar issues.”
Oropeza, who had recently called for an investigation into enforcement policies in the Ballona Wetlands, was praised by Playa del Rey resident Marcia Hanscom for her attention to the ecological preserve. After learning of the illegal dumping of televisions, microwave ovens and other debris in the wetlands, Oropeza pledged to press state officials for answers regarding the lack of enforcement in the protected habitat.
“She was a fierce, determined and passionate advocate for the environment,” Hanscom, an environmentalist and the co-director of Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute said. “I know that she was really frustrated by the state agencies’ failure to protect the Ballona Wetlands.”
Hanscom mentioned an incident in the ecological preserve that occurred with Oropeza in 2002.
“We were in Area B of the wetlands, behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey when we were accidentally locked in,” Hansom recalled. “Instead of walking around the fence, Jenny said, ‘Oh, let’s just climb over it.’
“I think that was a real metaphor for how she went up against obstacles. She just went up against whatever was in front of her.”
Oropeza sponsored two state bills, 1053 and 1326, that were tailor-made for environmental preserves, some local environmentalist say.
SB 1032 would have improved oversight of e-waste disposal, and the latter bill would have expanded funding for the local Conservation Corps and included e-waste in their expanded collection duties. Both bills died in the Assembly.
Lieu, who is termed out of office this year, recalled a joint venture with the senator on one of the most pressing issues of recent times.
“Just three days (prior to her passing), Sen. Oropeza and I wrote a joint op-ed in the Daily Breeze regarding protecting homeowners during this foreclosure crisis,” the assemblyman remembered. “Sen. Oropeza’s legacy is a shining example of all that is good with California. My prayers are with her family and her staff.”
Sotero said Oropeza was happy that Schwarzenegger signed several of her bills into law recently but was disappointed that pending legislation on a bill regulating mammograms was rejected by the governor last year. She was also hoping that a bill that would allow catering companies and restaurants to donate their leftover food directly to social service providers would again be heard in the state Senate.
“California is better because of the legacy of legislation under Jenny’s name,” Sotero said. “She will definitely be missed.”
If voters re-elect Oropeza Nov. 2, a special election will be held for her seat next year. Schwarzenegger is expected to announce the date of the special election after Nov. 2.
Oropeza is survived by her husband Tom Mullins, her mother Sharon, and siblings John and Lynne.