After a battle with cancer that has left her frail, San Antonio Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon has stepped down. Sunday was the East Side Democrat’s last day in office after 20 years of representing House District 120.
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It’s lunchtime and Mr. and Ms. G’s Restaurant on San Antonio’s East Side is bustling with customers getting their fill of fried chicken and collard greens.
Restaurant owner Addie Garner, Ms. G, says McClendon has been a customer and friend since her days on the San Antonio City Council in the mid-1990s.
“You know Ruth was one of our best customers. She liked to come in here and get her greens and soul food,” Garner said.
Garner said McClendon, like her restaurant, just makes you feel comfortable.
“People felt they could reach out to her when they needed help and they felt comfortable with her talking about our problems and so forth,” Garner explained.
On the other side of the restaurant Clarence Hill, a retired East Side teacher agrees. He recalls McClendon’s ability to pass legislation in 2007 that increased the state’s contribution to the Teacher Retirement Fund.
“I really appreciate what she did for the teachers while she was there in Austin, she really kept the schools on agenda and she did a lot of good things for the teachers that have retired,” said Hill.
Rick Cavender said he met McClendon at a Downtown Rotary Club dinner when she was Mayor Pro Tem. The two forged a friendship and began working on a community playground project.
“Our Rotary Club would bring volunteers to inner-city schools, libraries, community centers and build playgrounds and Ruth was hands on and she wasn’t afraid to get involved in the mud and dirt to do some of the projects,” Cavender explained.
Cavender credited McClendon with helping find money to build 15 playgrounds in areas of San Antonio that didn’t have playgrounds.
Friends said it was her career as a juvenile probation officer that led to her passion in Austin for criminal justice reform and years of work that led to the passage of the Tim Cole Act last year. Tim Cole who died in prison was the state’s first inmate exonerated because of DNA testing
The commission will examine wrongful convictions, hold people accountable and determine why the system didn’t work.
Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach praised McClendon for her work in front of her House colleagues, “Let me tell you this is a wonderful, wonderful lady and many people’s lives are saved and changed because of her work on this issue.”
On the day the bill passed Leach and members from both parties stood with McClendon at the front of the House as she cried tears of joy.
“Sometimes, you have to cry sometimes, but really seriously I want to thank all of you, many of you know I've been through a lot of health problems and I am really blessed to have all of you and this legislature,” McClendon said.
Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis is a longtime friend and Senate sponsor of the legislation. He said it wouldn’t have passed without McClendon.
“Tim Cole’s mother, Ruby Sessions lived in San Antonio and was a personal friend to Rep. McClendon. So she brought a real tenacity and passion to that particular bill and criminal justice reforms,” Ellis explained.
Ellis says it’s McClendon’s ability to persuade others that often got the job done, that made her influential on the powerful appropriations committee. Ellis talked to her last week when she decided not to finish her term.
“Rep. McClendon is doing fine, her mind is sharp, but her speech is slowed a bit, she still does talk sometimes, but she made the decision to retire early because she has wonderful grandchildren and she wants to be able to spend this time with them.”
There’s always more work to do at the legislature, but Ellis said Ruth Jones McClendon has done her part.