Opinion: Jenny Oropeza, a legacy of achievement and public service

Our kids and grandkids now have improved safeguards from cigarette smoke.

Our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives now have better, broader protections from breast cancer.

And the wallets of California taxpayers are fatter – by about $500 million annually since 2004.

Those breakthroughs are among the dozens of victories Sen. Jenny Oropeza won during her 22-year, public-service career, the last 10 as a statewide policy maker.

Today, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a close friend and ally of Oropeza, will lead a Senate floor tribute to Oropeza, who died last October. She was 53.

Like the rest of us, Oropeza was only human. Nevertheless, after six years in the Assembly and the last four in the Senate, she leaves behind substantive achievements, noteworthy for occurring amid years of chronic budget deficits.

Not all her Capitol battles were successful. But her raising public awareness had value. She waged a four-year fight to win equal pay for equal work. She tried banning BP-Arco’s debit-card fees, believing they were unfair. She was unable to get retail food preparers to donate edible leftovers to help “feed the hungry and save the planet.” And her environment-friendly ban on smoking at state beaches and parks was vetoed.

Yet, she made progress. She inspired. She was a role model. The Legislature’s Latino Caucus marked many of her bills as ‘priority’ because of their expected impact on the community. Her cancer-fighting efforts won her the American Cancer Society’s first-ever leadership award. A nationwide business magazine named her one of the 100 most influential Latinos in the United States. In 2010 alone, despite working from home most of the year, she accomplished enough to prompt more than 300 articles, news segments, editorial endorsements and Op-Eds on her efforts to improve the life of all Californians.

Among them, with indispensible help from her staff:

Fighting smoking:
After her four-year fight, Oropeza’s ban on smoking in cars with kids younger than 18 made California the strongest of only three states with such a law. Related cancer-fighting restrictions closed loopholes in anti-smoking efforts.

Fighting breast cancer:
Two months after her death, Oropeza’s efforts helped restore $25 million in breast-cancer services to low-income women. Her related law improved mammogram safety statewide by requiring public notice to patients and medical staff when x-ray machines fail safety inspections.

‘Tax-cutting liberal’: That’s an editorial’s headline in her hometown newspaper, The Long BeachPress-Telegram, on her resolving a years-long insurance dispute that since 2004 has annually saved California taxpayers an estimated $500 million.  Do the math. How much have you saved?

Improving transportation: She pushed to extend the Green Line rail system to Los Angeles International Airport; improve highway safety and continued federal transportation funding by halting local governments from issuing citations in lieu of state tickets; and giving airports statewide the tools to reduce congestion by allowing consolidation of car-rental offices.

Fair elections:
Almost every year since arriving in Sacramento, Oropeza won improvements to election accuracy, voter turnout and rules ensuring qualified citizens can vote. Next time you cast a ballot, read her Voter Bill of Rights, in voter pamphlets and posted at polling places statewide.

Health and safety:
Her laws increased fines on those found guilty of abusing dependent adults or senior citizens; maintained millions in federal Medicare funding; protected domestic violence victims from stalkers; reduced radiation exposure from routine x-rays; and established the first-ever state regulations on massage therapists.

Environmental protection:
From the Sierra Club to the League of Conservation Voters, environmentalists heaped kudos on Oropeza for her bills that cracked down on diesel exhaust, strengthened the state’s global warming initiative on regulating harmful gases, and reduced school-bus idling.

Other accomplishments:
Homebuyers will face fewer closing-cost surprises. Military service members and veterans know she’s a friend by her support of numerous causes, including her early help for Los Angeles Air Force Base and its review by the Base Closing and Realignment Commission. And it’s her measure each year that asks residents statewide to help make stronger communities by giving blood and making donations in memory of September 11.

Sadly, Oropeza was unable to do more. Had she lived to serve the four-year term she won, after her death, with 58 percent of the vote last November, she surely would have continued fighting for her ‘core’ causes. We can only hope she will be followed by those she inspired. May her legacy live on.

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