I've written on this site once before, under my previous identity, about Jenny Oropeza, my college friend made good. Jenny was expected to win easily re-election next month to her 28th District State Senate seat, which stretches from Venice Beach through the South Bay cities south of Los Angeles to part of Long Beach, where she made her start in politics. In that 2007 diary, I was happy to endorse her for the CA-37 Congressional seat, which she lost in a primary to Laura Richardson. I write for a sadder reason today than loss of a mere election. Jenny died on Wednesday, October 20. Her death made the evening news only on Thursday. I saw it only by happenstance while walking by my daughter watching the evening news. Jenny will win her final election posthumously on Nov. 2; the new Governor will call a special election.
I was going to write about something else today, but Jenny had a career and life worth celebrating, and so I won't delay another day. We have something to learn from her success.
(Funeral information is at the end of the diary.)
I wrote about my early interactions with Jenny in that 2007 diary on the CA-37 special election; I'll try not to repeat myself here too much here; click the link. The bare bones: I met her at Cal State Long Beach at the start of 1980, when she was in her first term as Student Body President. I was the editor of the "alternative" newspaper there -- oddly enough, it was a daily -- and Jenny charmingly (but not inappropriately) courted my editorial support for a (unprecedented at Long Beach) second term at that school. I ended up supporting her on the merits. Easy call.
It's strange when you meet someone in high school or college who has the ability and discipline to succeed in the "real world" of politics, because at that age you have little to compare it to. I've often been inclined to defend politicians and the tough choices and compromises they must make; much of that, I think, comes from my observation of Jenny and her longterm friend and political partner Sharon Weissman, who was Jenny's perpetual campaign manager and Chief of Staff. We tend to view personal political ambition with suspicion; one lesson of Jenny's life is that we should not be quite so quick to judge. Jenny was certainly ambitious, but in a way that I think liberals could appreciate. She wanted to be in office because she knew that she (and Sharon) could do a great job. And, when in office, she proved it.
Jenny did what she had to do, within bounds, to get elected. She was a fiendishly hard worker with well-tuned political antennae. As I later moved into student government myself, I got to know her private side a bit. She was funny, sometimes profane, incisive, and politically ahead of her time.
She was an advocate of gay rights on campus in 1980, not only before the Clinton Administration but before public recognition of AIDS/HIV, at a time when it was anything but a safe political stance. She created an environment where our student paper became the first one in California to publish an article on gays and lesbians in our college, complete with names and photos of those who had decided they wanted to come out in that fashion. As I think of how this came about, in days when such things simply weren't discussed in print, I realize that the people who had contacted me about the article had probably consulted Jenny first, if not been sent by her.
My favorite interaction with her came when the campus responded to Jimmy Carter's initiative to require young men born after the end of 1959 to register with the Selective Service. Our paper banged the drum loudly and profanely in support of a protest rally, and sleepy little commuter school Long Beach State ended up having a rally smaller only than Berkeley's. Another student government might have shut us down for some of the more aggressive stances we took; Jenny protected us.
I forget the cause we supported in a subsequent outdoor rally, possibly it dealt with hiking tuition above $50 per semester (even then we could see that tuition hikes would end badly), when she and I were both speakers. That rally was much less energized. I think Jenny had already spoken and realized that the crowd was, well, a bit dead. She sidled over to me and asked me, the wild-haired bearded radical, to do something that she knew she couldn't do, with her future planned to be within the system, but that had to be done.
I don't recall her exact words. One memory I had is that she said something like "Get them more energized. Rile them up. Go ahead and curse." Another memory, which I don't remember clearly enough to attribute to her, was her saying "They need to get excited. When you go out there, say 'fuck' a lot." Whether that was her advice or my loose interpretation of it, that's what I did, and the crowd did get a lot more excited. It ended up being a good rally. We both understood that sometimes people who don't expect a future in politics can do things that politicians themselves can't do.
Does that seem unfair, or wrong? If she had just been out for herself, perhaps. But she was a precious commodity and she knew it. She knew that her career was worth protecting, because when she got into office she would do great things. And so she did.
I knew Jenny in school as a brunette -- to be honest, I have to say "buxom brunette." I know that it shouldn't matter, but it was surely the first thing that everyone who met her in those days noticed -- and it did matter at the time, which was a much more openly sexist one. In those days, when there were only a handful of women in state and federal office, she was put in the position of becoming a feminist pioneer in politics. Jenny was adroit and ahead of her time in being able to politely and cheerfully deflect unwanted male attention and getting people to focus on her intelligence and the merits of what she had to say. She was a stereotype-buster.
In later years, she started lightening her hair -- what we in Orange County call "the Loretta Sanchez look" for Latinas -- and so all of the images I found of her today show her as various shades of blonde. I wish I could have found at least one of her with the dark hair of her youth. There are other photos -- in time she got older, she got sick -- but this is how I'll remember her. (I chose another picture to lead off this diary because I think it's gorgeous and she might well appreciate it.)
Jenny was a strong crusader for public health and environmental protection. I remember her being this way in college, but it surely accelerated after her own bout with liver cancer in 2004, which despite her remission seems plausibly related to her cause of death. From the Sacramento Bee:
Oropeza had been largely absent from the Senate since her office announced in May that she had been diagnosed with a blood clot in her abdomen. The Long Beach Democrat, first elected to the Senate in 2006, had battled liver cancer and a tumor during her time in the Assembly.
Her own battle with cancer inspired her to become a champion of cancer prevention in the Legislature.
"I've always believed that we ought to regenerate the Earth and be concerned about ozone levels, but I didn't personalize it until I got sick," she told The Bee in 2005.
She carried legislation to curb fight cancer-causing chemicals and air pollution, including a ban on smoking at beaches and state parks. Earlier this year, she joined forces with Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, on legislation that would restore a program that provides mammograms to low-income women who do not have sufficient health coverage.
She was sick enough towards the end that she was one of two Democratic Senators to miss the budget vote two weeks before her death. She could afford to, knowing there were enough votes to pass it. Had there not been, I expect that there would have been another profile in courage, where Jenny would have shown up against her doctor's wishes to settle the issue.
Now here's where this political obituary takes an unusual turn.
Jenny's story is also her friend and Chief of Staff Sharon Weissman's story. I don't know when I've ever seen a friendship as lasting and productive as theirs. (I have no idea what Sharon's plans are now; I haven't been in touch with her in over three years. No one would be better equipped to continue Jenny's legacy in the State Senate, but I'm sure that many others will seek to do so. She will, as usual, presumably do what she thinks is best for the district.) But in reading about this tragedy late last night, I found several articles focusing on their amazing collaboration that are worth sharing. I'll share just a couple.
This story from the Long Beach Press-Telegram is reprinted in full on Jenny's official State Senate page, which I interpret to mean it can be quoted in full. (Editors or P-T staff, let me know if otherwise and I'll chop it to a few paragraphs, but I hope that you won't.)
Long Beach Press-Telegram: A trusted aide, and a better friend
Monday, June 19, 2006
By Jenny Marder, Staff writer
LONG BEACH — Sharon Weissman helped Jenny Oropeza apply to college. She introduced her to her husband, Tom Mullins. She was the maid of honor in her wedding.
And she's run nearly all of her political campaigns, dating back to her race for student body president at Cal State Long Beach.
Over the years, Oropeza has climbed the political ladder, and her recent Democratic primary victory in the 28th Senate State District has her poised for another step up.
But behind her victories for Assembly, City Council, school board even CSULB student body president has been Weissman, her trusted aide, political adviser and the chief of staff in her assembly office.
Oropeza, who is finishing her third term in the State Assembly, calls Weissman "her right arm."
So hiring her as the top staffer in her council office was a natural choice. And appointing her district director when she won her Assembly seat in 2000 was a no-brainer as well.
"We have worked together and known each other so long," Oropeza said. "We share a common vision of what's important."
With countless meetings and engagements in Sacramento, Oropeza can't be everywhere at once, she lamented Friday. But her team, led by Weissman, can.
"She really is my eyes and ears in the community, and she can often speak with great authority," Oropeza said. "She is very important to our relationship with the local community."
As if eyes, ears and a right arm weren't enough, the two say that shared values have drawn and bonded them together.
And backgrounds that paralleled each other in many ways were at the roots of those values, Weissman said.
"We're both from backgrounds of very modest means," she said.
Both grew up in apartments. As children, neither had cars, neither had health insurance.
"So when we talk about things like public transportation, health care, and education as the equalizer these are all things that are not abstract for either of us," Weissman said. "These are all very real issues for Jenny, as they are for me."
The two met in high school in a youth business program called Junior Achievement, which teaches students about economics, free enterprise and the stock market.
Weissman, then a senior in high school, was chairing the organization's mini Chamber of Commerce and looking for someone to volunteer for the "billboard committee."
Oropeza raised her hand and excitedly volunteered, as she would for a number of subsequent volunteer positions, Weissman said. They became fast friends.
"She actually changed my life," Oropeza said. "She's older than me. She helped me figure out how to go to college."
In 1975, they were roommates for a year at CSULB. Weissman, then a student senator, drafted her friend to become involved in student government.
Not long after that, Oropeza would run her first successful campaign for student body president.
As her campaign manager, Weissman would help Oropeza hand out fliers and accompany her while she spoke to campus sororities, fraternities and cultural clubs.
Weissman didn't know then that it would be the first of many campaigns she would manage for her friend.
"Jenny was always a community activist," she said. "She has such a passion for the people she represents. She is always making sure they have a vigorous and passionate representative."
Since her college days, Oropeza has served two terms on the Long Beach Board of Education, two terms on the Long Beach City Council and is finishing her third term on the state assembly.
Their relationship has extended beyond politics. After suffering stage-three ovarian cancer in 1999, Weissman was able to understand and help Oropeza when she was diagnosed with liver cancer.
Weissman brought her dinners and helped her do laundry and other household chores as Oropeza endured a difficult surgery, recovery and ensuing months of chemotherapy treatment.
Their warmth and ease was apparent when posing for a picture Friday in downtown's Cesar Chavez Park, which the assemblywoman fought to open during her council tenure.
There, Weissman smoothed Oropeza's collar and put her car keys in her purse. Near the picnic area, where a young boy licked frosting off his fingers, the two put their arms around each other and smiled at the camera.
"Pretend you like each other," the photographer told them.
Weissman smiled and gave her friend an affectionate squeeze on the shoulder.
"That's not hard," she said.
From the Contra Costa Times interview with Sharon:
"I saw her most passionate when she was fighting for her constituents," she said. "You could never mistake when Jenny was on a mission. She certainly had a look in her eye and could not be gotten off track."
Even as Oropeza grew sick this year from a blood clot in her stomach, she continued working diligently, even if she was forced to miss much of the legislative session, Weissman said.
"Someone asked her if she was dying, and she said, `No, I have a lot more work to do,"' Weissman recalled.
The senator expected that same effort from her staff members and was a "tough taskmaster," Weissman said.
"She expected the highest quality work from us because she felt that ... all of us were paid with taxpayer dollars and they deserve the best," she sad.
After Oropeza was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2004, which she overcame in 2005, she grew even more driven, Weissman said. Much of Oropeza's legislation to follow dealt with pollution, smoking, public health and cancer.
"I would be remiss if I didn't say that having cancer changed Jenny," she said. "It made her impatient."
I suppose I'll quote this much from my 2007 diary:
It is possible that had I attended college with Laura Richardson rather than Jenny Oropeza, I'd be supporting the former. But, frankly, the odds are against it. Few people in my college's student government had the earmarks of someone who would continue on to success in politics; most of them are not people I'd endorse. Yet Jenny was always clearly on a track towards high public service, and despite that she somehow failed to disgust me. Her motives towards public service were good -- constituency-serving rather than self-serving. While Jenny and I disagreed at times about various policies, she was someone I'd trust to represent my interests, and someone whose heart was in the right place. Beyond that, she'll be a real battler in Congress -- and we all know that we need that.
What Jenny taught me is that there is more than one path to progressive achievement. The path that I (and I sense many critics of professional politicians here) have generally taken is as an outside critic of the government who doesn't have to compromise, doesn't have to groom contacts and flatter constituents, with the compromises this inevitably brings. And this is a good way to be -- but it is not enough. We need people inside the system as well who are willing and able to do the hard work of governing in a progressive direction, who will be honest and clear-eyed and, among other things, will be able to tell us "no" when what we want is too far, while being willing to tell other professional politicians that our interests and desires in a given case as legitimate, and who can write solid legislation to put them into effect.
You need both. Without us, the likes of Jenny won't discover many issues that matter and won't be able to point to us as a force to be reckoned with. But without the likes of Jenny Oropeza in office, we on the left can become simply a sideshow -- often correct, but without political effect -- rather than a force. We need both types -- and we should respect those "professional politicians" who do their job conscientiously and well.
That, I realize, is largely why I'm working hard for Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer, and others this year. (Note: in this diary, I speak for no candidate or organization other than myself.)
We lost someone important in Jenny Oropeza. May her successor live up to her high standards; may her colleagues benefit from her example.
Here's some late breaking news:
A public funeral for state Sen. Jenny Oropeza has been scheduled for Monday.
The funeral will take place at 1 p.m. at Forest Lawn's Cypress location, according to her chief of staff Sharon Weissman. The address is 4471 Lincoln Ave. in Cypress.
The public is welcome to attend, Weissman said.
By coincidence, I'm tabling for Jerry Brown at Cypress College on Monday. I guess I'll be wearing a dark suit and will be taking a long lunch.