Ruth Jones McClendon poses for a photo with Cassandra Littlejohn. Photo courtesy of Clara Mitchell / DreamWeek.
Ruth Jones McClendon (right) poses for a photo with Cassandra Littlejohn. Photo courtesy of Clara Mitchell / DreamWeek.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, the longtime Texas House member from San Antonio’s Eastside who has battled non-smoker’s lung cancer since 2009, is retiring as a state representative with 11 months left in what she had previously announced would be her last term as a member of the Texas Legislature.

McClendon, 72, a Democrat who has held the office since winning a special election in 1996 and is the senior member of the Bexar County delegation, sent a letter of resignation to Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday, making her resignation effective Sunday, Jan. 31. McClendon, who has kept a low public profile in San Antonio in recent years, announced in September that she would not seek re-election in Texas House District 120. Her resignation letter is short and did not state a reason for her early departure from public office, but at least one associate said it was due to her health.

“With a grateful heart filled with many years of service as the state representatives to the constituents of Texas House District 120, I respectfully inform you of my intent to retire from the House of Representatives, as of January 31, 2016,” McClendon states in her  letter to Abbott. “During my tenure, I hope the legislation I have passed and supported has been meaningful and beneficial to my constituents and to the people of the state of Texas. I will sincerely miss the many dear friends I have made while serving the public, and will continue to pray for God’s blessing upon this great state of Texas.”

McClendon was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in 2009, and underwent surgery in 2014 to remove water on her brain. She was seen frequently using a wheelchair to traverse the state Capitol during the 84th legislative session in 2015, but she often stood up in front of the House chamber to address colleagues or speak on legislative proposals. She could not be reached for additional comment for this report.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (left) speaks with state Rep. Myra Crownover on the legislature floor. Photo courtesy of McClendon staff / District 120.
State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (left) speaks with state Rep. Myra Crownover on the legislature’s floor. Photo courtesy of McClendon staff / District 120. Credit: Courtesy / McClendon staff (District 120).

Prior to her winning a 1996 special election for the state house, McClendon spent three years on the San Antonio City Council as the District 2 representative. As a state legislator, the Houston native chaired the House Committee on Rules and Resolutions and served with the House Committee on Transportation, and the House Appropriations Committee. McClendon has authored, sponsored, co-sponsored and passed more than 170 bills, excluding resolutions.

One of McClendon’s biggest wins came last year when the Legislature passed her bill creating an innocence commission to help prevent wrongful convictions. Her priority issues had long been education, health care for children, elderly and the disabled, restorative justice programs, and transportation system improvements. One of her most greatest disappointments, no doubt, was Abbott’s June 2015 veto of $132 million for the renovation and redevelopment of the historic Eastside G.J. Sutton State Office Complex. Abbott’s veto, which many questioned after he claimed it was done on fiscal rather than political grounds, is one of the very few setbacks that has occurred on the Eastside, which has received an increasing amount of support funding for badly-needed public redevelopment initiatives.

Abbott can call a special election to fill the District 120 seat between McClendon’s departure and the start of the 85th legislative session in 2017, but a timetable for that is unclear. With the March 1 primary looming and multiple candidates vying for the seat, any special election likely would come afterwards.

McClendon seldom faced significant opposition in her Democratic district. Her initial retirement announcement last September spurred six people – all Democrats – to file for the March 1 primary and a chance to succeed McClendon. The winner of the primary – be it March 1 or in a May 24 runoff – will run unopposed in the November general election. No Republicans filed for the seat.

The roster of March 1 primary candidates includes Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, a sister of Spurs legend George “Iceman” Gervin. Together they founded the George Gervin Youth Center, a facility that includes the George Gervin Academy, a free public charter school.

Others on the ballot include former City Councilmembers Art Hall and Mario Salas. Salas also held the District 2 seat, while Hall represented District 8 and was not living in District 2 until he filed for election.  Former mayoral aide and VIA Metropolitan Transit board member Lou Miller, and Byron Miller, no relation, who ran for the District 2 Council seat in 2009 and lost to Ivy Taylor, also are running.

Lou Miller, an insurance agent, made news when he joined Taylor’s staff following her mayoral appointment in July 2014, but then resigned months later, reportedly over political friction between the City and San Antonio Police Officers Association over collective bargaining.

The sixth candidate, political newcomer and legislative director LaTronda Darnell, is not a registered Bexar County voter. She and her husband publicly listed New Braunfels as their most recent home, according to an Express-News column.

Local officials present and past chimed in on McClendon’s imminent departure and the primary election.

“I know she has done great things, not just for San Antonio but statewide,” said Councilmember Alan Warrick (D2). “I look forward to seeing the results of the race. I know some of the candidates well. I think they are all capable.”

Warrick said he did not know why McClendon decided to step down early, but the unexpected timing of the announcement, political observers said, suggest it was for health reasons. It would not be a surprise if she pushed up her retirement because of her illness.

Former Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson said Texas House District 120 needs a representative who has deep Eastside roots and understands that the area has the potential for socio-economic and infrastructure revival.

“It’s got to be somebody who will fight for that community because God knows they’re playing catch up like a lot of older communities are,” he said.

*Top Image: Ruth Jones McClendon poses for a photo with Cassandra Littlejohn in San Antonio during DreamWeek 2016.  Photo courtesy of Clara Mitchell / DreamWeek.  

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.