AUSTIN — For the first time in her 19 years as a representative, Ruth Jones McClendon last week had to navigate her way through an opening day of the legislative session at the state Capitol in a wheelchair.
She brushed it off as an annoyance.
“Nothing has really changed except my mobility,” McClendon said with a grin.
McClendon quit smoking in the 1990s. But in 2009, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, which went into remission at the end of that year. As quickly as the cancer appeared, it quickly disappeared.
Still, she received extensive treatments. McClendon underwent surgery last month to remove water from her brain.
“I don’t like being in a wheelchair, but who does? Until I can get well there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News.
McClendon was a juvenile probation officer, and a member of San Antonio City Council, before she became the lone African-American in the San Antonio legislative delegation in 1996.
“I always wanted to be involved in public service because I thought that was the way that I could help my people because they were asking for things that nobody could seem to give them,” McClendon said.
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who’s McClendon’s close friend and colleague, said that when his mother died last month, McClendon called him from her hospital bed.
“She said ‘I’m calling from the hospital room. Sorry I can’t be with you but whatever I can do from this hospital room on my phone I will do,’” Sylvester recalled.
He was surprised when she showed up to the Democratic Caucus meeting just a couple weeks later and then to the first day of the session with her 3-year-old granddaughter by her side.
Sylvester served on the House Appropriations Committee with McClendon and went to South Africa for 10 days with her — a trip organized by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. The trip was made in 2011 after McClendon was diagnosed with cancer.
Sylvester said he wasn’t surprised when McClendon returned to the Legislature after she was diagnosed.
“Not surprised, but certainly inspired,” Sylvester said. “Since I have known her, she has never complained about her situation. There are no pity parties. There is no woe is me attitude.”
Spending time in a wheelchair certainly hasn’t brought her down either.
Last session, she introduced the controversial innocence commission bill, which called for creation of a panel to investigate wrongful convictions.
It was passed in the House, 115-28, but died in the Senate without a vote. McClendon accused Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, of planning to kill her innocence commission bill.
A spokesman for Huffman said she was unavailable for comment.
McClendon has filed the bill again this session.
“I was sad,” McClendon said. “We worked so hard on it and there were so many people — more people than I’ve ever had on a piece of legislation — in favor of it.”
Along with her innocence commission bill, McClendon said she also will be pushing a bill, known as House Bill 61, which would create a common course numbering system to allow students to easily transfer credits from a community college to a university.
Turner said colleagues continue to give her the respect she deserves, and although she may take longer to get across the Capitol to a committee meeting, they know she will be there.
“At a time when politics are so toxic, what Ruth is doing forces us all to rise above the partisan politics and the toxicity in the air,” Turner said. “I don’t care whether you are Tea Party conservative or a flaming progressive or anyone in between. You cannot help but be inspired when you see her.”
According to McClendon, battling cancer and going through recent surgery has not made her consider leaving the Legislature. McClendon would not confirm if this session would be her last.
“I never know from one session to the next,” McClendon said. “I love it. I love working with the people here and I love working with the people in my community.”
Many believe San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor has her sights set on McClendon’s position in 2016.
Henry Flores, political science research professor at St. Mary’s University, said McClendon has not been as effective as a legislator since the diagnosis.
“Not as much as she was before because obviously this is weighing heavily on her,” Flores said. “This may be her last session.”
Flores said that over her career, McClendon has been a respected vocal representative for her district.
“I think she has respect on both sides of the aisle,” Flores said. “She’s present. She makes her voice known and she does it well.”
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who’s running for mayor in San Antonio, said she met McClendon back before McClendon ran for the City Council. Van de Putte said McClendon is one of her closest friends.
And Van de Putte said McClendon’s position on the Appropriations Committee has been a key position for San Antonio, and that she has been a leader in juvenile justice and understanding pensions and investments.
“She may lose an occasional skirmish, but she’s always continued the fight,” Van de Putte said. “I think Ruth will be here as long as Ruth wants to be here.”