Friends and former colleagues of the late State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon on Tuesday praised her commitment to education and justice, her tenacity, her ability to build bridges across political divides, and her joyful personality that won her loyal friends regardless of partisan politics.
McClendon, a Democrat from San Antonio who represented District 120 in the Texas House from 1996 to 2016, died Tuesday at the age of 74.
McClendon had been battling brain cancer and in her last legislative session in 2015 used a motorized scooter to navigate the State Capitol. Her resignation from the House was effective Jan. 31, 2016.
“Ruth Jones McClendon was a consensus builder, who used her considerable political skills to help the needy,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg stated in a Tuesday press release. “She wielded power gently but effectively … San Antonio is a better city because of her work as a member of City Council and in the Texas House. She will be greatly missed.”
McClendon represented District 2 on San Antonio’s City Council from 1993 to 1996. Following the July 1996 resignation of State Rep. Karyne J. Conley, McClendon won a special election to the Texas House on Nov. 5, 1996 and was sworn in one week later.
“District 2, the City of San Antonio, and the State of Texas have lost a truly dynamic, brilliant, and selfless public servant,” said City Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2). “The Honorable Ruth Jones McClendon spent most of her life fighting for our most vulnerable citizens as a champion for our children, our seniors, and everyone in between.”
Several of McClendon’s former colleagues and friends, both in the State house and in San Antonio politics, said Tuesday that McClendon had a special talent for earning the respect and friendship of fellow elected officials even if they disagreed with her politics.
She never made it personal, they said.
“She was so graceful, and so forceful – a true lady. In this day of tribal politics, Ruth was one who could disagree vehemently with someone’s position, but never with them personally,” said former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who served with McClendon in the Legislature. “You don’t hear about that anymore. So her colleagues adored her, even the ones who never voted with her.”
Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger agreed. “The thing that I liked most about Ruth was, she was such a convivial person and actually believed that people should get along.”
Calling McClendon a “very effective advocate” for San Antonio’s Eastside, Hardberger said she “never complained about [being] mistreated because of her race – at all – and she was just very effective [in] getting people of varying views and perspectives to work together.”
Her willingness to work across the aisle made her a more effective City Council member and State legislator, Hardberger said, even when her measures didn’t pass. “If you like someone, and they like you, even if…they’re not likely to vote with you, there are still a lot of ways that having that genial relationship [that] can help you.
“I think the ability to unite people is a better accomplishment than most legislative acts that you could pass,” he continued. “It’s at the heart of a working democracy. And she was a true champion, and her weapons were being honest, forthright, and cheerful.”
Van de Putte praised McClendon’s resiliency, her “very wise head for business,” her commitment to education, especially community colleges, and her wit and sense of fun.
“We were friends and legislative sisters,” Van de Putte said. “She was the person I went to battle with, and the person I went shoe-shopping with.”
San Antonio attorney Frank Burney, who helped organize annual fundraisers for McClendon, said she rarely drew an opponent because she put a premium on constituent services. “You couldn’t ever say no to Ruth,” he said.
He also described how McClendon reached across the partisan aisle when a young Joe Straus was first elected to the State Legislature. “Ruth took Joe under her arm and basically taught him everything about the Legislature,” Burney said of Straus, the Republican speaker of the House who in October announced he would not seek reelection. “I think Joe learned a lot from Ruth. She was the one person who reached across the aisle to help him.”
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) called McClendon “a powerful voice in both City Council and the Texas Legislature.”
“Libby and I are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend…. Her legacy of public service continues to inspire us to work for causes she championed, including access to healthcare and helping all students fulfill their God-given potential … Our prayers are with Denver and Ruth’s wonderful family.”
According to her biography, McClendon authored, sponsored, co-sponsored, and passed nearly 150 bills throughout her tenure as a state representative. Her legislative focus rested on “improving educational opportunities for students throughout the state, fighting for health care for children and the frail and elderly, creating a climate for businesses to flourish and keeping our neighborhoods safe.”
A lifelong Texan, McClendon was born in Houston on Oct. 5, 1943. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from the Texas Southern University in Houston, a Master of Arts from Webster University in Webster Grove, Missouri, and received an honorary Doctorate from Guadalupe College Theological Seminary in Houston.
McClendon is survived by her husband, Denver McClendon, who serves as the District 2 trustee and assistant secretary for the Alamo Colleges.
Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking contributed to this report.