Reporting from Sacramento — Jenny Oropeza, a Democratic state senator whose battle with cancer five years ago drove her to sponsor laws protecting public health and the environment, died Wednesday evening at a hospital in her hometown of Long Beach. She was 53.
Oropeza had been declared cancer-free in 2005 but had been under treatment since May for a blood clot in her abdomen that kept her from traveling to Sacramento to attend legislative sessions.
On Wednesday afternoon she was taken to Long Beach Memorial Hospital because she was having difficulty breathing.
She died at 9:50 p.m. surrounded by family members including her husband, Tom Mullins. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed many Oropeza bills including a 2007 law that banned smoking in cars when minors are present, ordered the flags at the Capitol building to be lowered to half-staff in her honor.
"Jenny was a champion for improving public health, and her leadership will be missed,'' the governor said in a statement. "As she battled her own health issues, she remained dedicated to her constituents.''
Oropeza, who represented parts of Los Angeles, Long Beach and the South Bay, was "a true public servant and a cherished part of our legislative family,'' said Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
"She carried on her responsibilities through great physical challenge, which is an inspiration for all of us, and for that service we are grateful,'' Steinberg said.
Oropeza's name will remain on the ballot for the Nov. 2 election, where she was the heavy favorite to win reelection in the 28th Senate District, because it is too late to remove it, said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Steinberg.
The others on the ballot are Republican John S. Stammreich, an aerospace contracts manager, and Libertarian David Ruskin, a physician.
If voters reelect Oropeza despite her death, a special election will be held to fill the Senate seat, Trost said.
Oropeza was born Sept. 27, 1957, in Montebello, the oldest of three children of Victor and Sharon Oropeza. Her father, the son of Mexican immigrants, was an accomplished Impressionist oil painter, but the working-class family struggled, and the marriage ended in divorce when Jenny Oropeza was a child.
Oropeza went to Cal State Long Beach, where she was elected student body president and later received a business degree. It was in college that she met and married fellow student Tom Mullins in 1977. He went on to run a freight-forwarding business in Long Beach. They had no children.
Oropeza was elected to the Long Beach school board in 1988 and then became the first Latino elected to the Long Beach City Council, in 1994. In 2000 she won a seat in the state Assembly, where she served as chairwoman of the state Assembly Budget Committee wrestling with the state's financial problems.
Oropeza was elected to the state Senate in 2006 and was chairwoman of the Senate Majority Caucus.
In 2004, Oropeza was diagnosed with liver cancer, and the debilitating disease required six months of chemotherapy and surgery before she was declared cancer-free in 2005. Her experience with cancer changed her as a person and a lawmaker, she told The Times in 2005.
"For me, it changed my life. I got a lot of gifts out of having this disease — understanding illness and a huge appreciation for nurses. They really are the healers,'' Oropeza said at the time. "It also helped me to focus more on environmental issues that may impact our health.''
Oropeza bills later signed into law require state agencies to find ways to reduce patients' exposure to radiation from medical X-rays, and extend the state's smoking ban to parking garages, lobbies, lounges, waiting areas, elevators, stairwells and restrooms.
Her bills also created the first state regulations for massage therapists, increased fines on people convicted of elder abuse, required improved notice of safety violations involving mammograms and restricted idling of school buses near campuses.
This year the governor vetoed an Oropeza bill that would have banned smoking on state beaches and in state parks, and she was previously unsuccessful in trying to impose a fee on diesel used by ships and trains to pay for anti-pollution measures.
In addition to her husband, survivors include Oropeza's mother, Sharon; a sister, Lynne; and a brother, John.
Services are pending.