LONG BEACH - Few people may have been as affected by the death of state Sen. Jenny Oropeza on Wednesday night as Sharon Weissman.

Weissman was Oropeza's chief of staff, but she is so much more than that.

The pair have been friends for 38 years, after meeting in high school. They later attended Cal State Long Beach together and became roommates.

Weissman had helped Oropeza apply to college. Later, she introduced Oropeza to her future husband, Tom Mullins, and she was the maid of honor at their wedding.

While at CSULB, Oropeza and Weissman's connection went from personal to political, as Weissman helped her friend get elected student body president. Weissman has run almost every one of Oropeza's political campaigns as Oropeza rose through the ranks of Long Beach's school board and City Council, and then on to state Assembly and Senate.

Oropeza had a drive, Weissman said - to empower Latinos, to improve the community, to help those who were most in need.

"To her, politics was a way of gaining the resources, and I would say power, that you need to make change, to make things happen," Weissman said Thursday.

Even outside of work - be it City Hall or the Statehouse later in life - Oropeza had a singular focus on public service and politics, Weissman said. Her pastime? Reading biographies, particularly political biographies about leaders such as former presidents John F.


Advertisement

Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Oropeza never had children, but she dedicated her life to her community, Weissman said.

"I saw her most passionate when she was fighting for her constituents," she said. "You could never mistake when Jenny was on a mission. She certainly had a look in her eye and could not be gotten off track."

Even as Oropeza grew sick this year from a blood clot in her stomach, she continued working diligently, even if she was forced to miss much of the legislative session, Weissman said.

"Someone asked her if she was dying, and she said, `No, I have a lot more work to do,"' Weissman recalled.

The senator expected that same effort from her staff members and was a "tough taskmaster," Weissman said.

"She expected the highest quality work from us because she felt that ... all of us were paid with taxpayer dollars and they deserve the best," she sad.

After Oropeza was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2004, which she overcame in 2005, she grew even more driven, Weissman said. Much of Oropeza's legislation to follow dealt with pollution, smoking, public health and cancer.

"I would be remiss if I didn't say that having cancer changed Jenny," she said. "It made her impatient."

As Weissman reflected on her boss and friend over the phone Thursday, Oropeza's calm and cool right-hand woman finally couldn't stop the tears.

"There was so much to do, and she was always aware that we don't know how much time we have," Weissman said.

paul.eakins@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1278