A special election has been called for Feb. 15 to replace Democratic state Senator Jenny Oropeza, who suddenly died last Oct. 20. That's the law, of course, and Arnold Schwarzenegger set the date as one of his last acts as California governor.Yet "special election" doesn't sound quite right, coming only a few months after the plain, ol' general election last Nov. 2 turned out so … well … what is it called when 58.35 percent of ballots are cast for a candidate just about everybody knows has been dead for two weeks? A personal tribute to Oropeza's record in office? The political savvy of voters determined to keep Republican John Stammreich from lucking into the seat? Either way, special. The Feb. 15 election could be called extra special, and not only for sentimental reasons. It will be the first under California's new primary law, which sends the top two vote-getters to the general election-in this case, April 19-even if they are both from the same political party … unless one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. In that case, there is no runoff; the candidate with more than 50 percent is the winner. Meanwhile, Monday would have been the day Oropeza began her second term on the floor of the state Senate-and for her staff in Sacramento and the 28th district field office in Redondo Beach, the first day of a four-year commitment to one of the most-prolific legislators in the state capital. Instead, the day seemed to emphasize the finality of Oropeza's 22-year career as an elected public official-which doesn't even count her stint as Student Body President at Cal State Long Beach-which was done too soon at age 53 due to complications from a blood clot in her stomach. As for her staff, it was simply the first day back from the holiday break, a return to tending to the needs of constituents-a diverse lot cast into parts of Long Beach and Los Angeles and all of Carson, Del Aire, El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Lennox, Lomita, Manhattan Beach, Marina del Rey, Redondo Beach and Torrance-and a resumption of the countdown to their last day on the job. In fact, the holiday break was the first chance for many members of Oropeza's staff to truly grieve the loss of their friend and consider the loss of their employment. "This year's holiday season was a poignant, bittersweet kind of time for us," says Ray Sotero, a former newspaper reporter who became Oropeza's director of communications. "When Jenny died, it was a tremendous shock for everyone-but in different ways at different levels. "First, of course, for Jenny's family and friends-but also for her staff and her constituents, many of whom had long-term relationships with her and, through her, with others." Sotero, for example, had worked eight years for Oropeza-side-by-side with her during policy fights in the legislature and personal challenges such as her battles with cancer. "In some ways the feeling was similar to my 22 years as reporter, when I would feel pride that I did good work, that I shed light under a rock, revealing something the public had a right to know," he reflects. "But working on legislation has some different satisfactions, too. I think I can speak for the staff that we took pride in achieving policy goals that contribute to the greater good. "The cancer, in many ways, motivated Jenny. But perhaps the most-important was that it gave her a sense that time is limited. We are only on this earth X-number of days. For Jenny, especially in an era of term limits, it gave her a greater sense of her opportunity and the importance of making the most of it." But no matter how great its spiritual rewards, life as a legislative staffer-like life as a journalist-has its essential practical side, too. And most members of Oropeza's team soon will be without jobs. "In between taking care of constituents we're scrambling to find work," says Sotero. "Three of the capitol staffers have found jobs-two with other lawmakers and one was moving to San Jose, anyway-but as far as I know none of the five staffers in the district office have anything lined up." Normally, a state legislator approaching the end of his or her term will attempt to provide opportunities for staff by getting out the word to colleagues. Oropeza obviously didn't have that opportunity. "We have a talented, strong, diverse staff," says Sotero. "But this is not exactly the best time of year to be looking for work, especially with the economy being what it is." Millions of Californians would agree. But Sotero says there is some inspiration to be drawn from the example that Oropeza set. "Jenny impressed a lot of people with her ability to connect with them," he says. "She was a regular person who was fortunate to be in a position where she could help shape public policy. She was feisty. I remember one interview in which she told a reporter she was proud of people thinking she was a tough broad." Dave Wielenga, a professional journalist since 1972 and Downey resident since 1981, is publisher of GreaterLongBeach.com, an online magazine that tells the below-the-surface stories---through coverage of news, arts, politics, social issues and entertainment---of the people who live in Long Beach and surrounding cities.
********** Published: January 6, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 38