Brain cancer has put life and politics in perspective for Lena Guerrero.
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It took Lena Guerrero close to a minute to answer the door of her two-story brick home in Southwest Austin. Through a pretty leaded-glass window, I watched the former Texas Railroad commissioner, once the classic young woman in a hurry, as she methodically made her way down the hall with the help of a walker.
She greeted me warmly, but her words came in a careful cadence, as if her full-throttle personality had downshifted to a more cautious pace. These days, Lena is saving her energy for the most important fight of her life—against brain cancer. “It is inoperable,” the 43-year-old said, “so what I am interested in is buying time.”
Once on the fast track to political stardom, Lena has a new appreciation for time since her doctors discovered two brain tumors fifteen months ago. Time used to mark the milestones of her career; now it’s a precious commodity to be savored and rationed, like water in the desert. “In the old days, if someone had said, ‘Let it go,’ I could not have,” she told me. “Now I am happy to let things go.”
In the old days, it seemed that nothing would hold Lena back. She was elected to the Texas House in 1985 and quickly won the confidence of her elders and caught the attention of this magazine, which named her one of the state’s ten best legislators just four years later, at age 31. Governor Ann Richards noticed her as well, naming her to fill an open seat on the Railroad Commission in 1991—an unimaginable opportunity for a Valley-born girl who had sweated as a migrant worker alongside her eight siblings. Energetic and ebullient, Lena seemed destined to wield power. She embraced her patron’s style thoroughly, even adopting a bouffant hairdo and good-ol’-girl manner of speaking.
But in 1992 the Dallas Morning News reported that she had claimed a degree she had never received from the University of Texas, and the clock struck midnight on her reign as Cinderella. Even in school, Lena had been short on time, though her affliction was too much ambition. Anxious to begin the political career that beckoned, she neglected her studies, failing several courses and ultimately abandoning school. She paid a heavy price for that impatience in November 1992, when Republican Barry Williamson defeated her for reelection by hammering her again and again over the falsified résumé. (Nearly ten years later, she’s still paying—literally. Because the controversy forced her out of office early, she’s two months shy of being eligible for the state retirement system’s health insurance plan.)
The fall from grace was swift. The Democrats’ young darling became, overnight, a pariah. “It took me six months to get over the nastiness of people,” she recalled. Her instinct is still to defend herself when discussing that period in her life—”Listen, I did some good stuff on the Railroad Commission, but nobody wants to give me credit”—yet she can also be quite humble and contrite. “It was stupid on my part,” she said. “I still don’t know why I did it.”
After her defeat, Lena toyed with the idea of becoming a lobbyist, a move not immediately endorsed by the Austin crowd. After all, hadn’t she let down Ann Richards, if not the entire Democratic party? But she loved the Legislature, and she excelled at political strategy. “So I went to see Gene Fondren about lobbying,” she said. Fondren, the respected lobbyist for the Texas Automobile Dealers Association and the unofficial dean of the lobby, gave her his blessing. “He said, ‘The only thing you can do is try. And guess what? I’m going to hire you.’” Lena started with five “itty-bitty clients at itty-bitty prices,” and a profitable practice evolved. Lawmakers, who understand living in glass houses, didn’t hold the incident against her. “Nobody’s clear of problems, you know,” she said.
The legislative session that ended May 28 was Lena’s fifth as a lobbyist. Her clients included AT&T, Blue Cross, and the Tigua Indian Tribe—an impressive roster when you consider the physical obstacles she faced daily. “I was concerned about this year because I would not be able to stand outside the House,” she said, referring to the tradition of lobbyists’ pouncing on lawmakers as they leave the floor. Instead, she relied on technology, watching committee meetings and floor sessions on television, and working the telephone. Occasionally, she would don a hat (chemotherapy made her hair fall out), climb into a wheelchair, and with the help of an aide, venture to the Capitol for personal visits. “All my phone calls were returned,” she said.
Relaxing in an overstuffed chair in her family room, she got animated when she recalled her work to win votes for a bill permitting the Tiguas to operate casinos on their reservation. “I’d call [lawmakers] and say, ‘I have a minute’s worth of explanation and then you can tell me where you are.’ I would say, ‘This is not about gambling. This is about the Indians and their right to use their land,’” she said. “We got eighty-three votes in the House. When we started we didn’t have very many.” She beamed with satisfaction: “We did good.”
Sessions are always grueling for a lobbyist; during this one, Guerrero juggled chemotherapy and an alternative-medicine regimen overseen by a clinic in Reno, Nevada. “What I decided before the session was I had two choices: I could say thank you, but I’m not going to work. I’m going to sit back and cry about what ails me. Or I could say here’s the deal, fellas, I’m going to create a circumstance that allows me to work.”
The circumstance entailed renting an apartment in a building adjacent to the Capitol, so she could be close by, and working with other lobbyists. “It’s really helpful,” she said of the team approach. She participated in strategy sessions and made calls; her team members provided the main Capitol presence. She recalled telling one client, “I’m not doing enough for you.” His response: “You’re still the quickest thing I’ve got on the payroll.”
Even since the session ended, lawmakers have continued to call her. “They’ve been very generous in checking on me,” she said. “I don’t think that happens to lobbyists a lot.”
During our interview, her husband of nearly eighteen years, Leo Aguirre, dropped in to give her one of her four dreaded daily injections. “It’s one of those little ones,” he said, cheerfully reassuring her. Leo, a business and political consultant, rearranged his work schedule to stay home with her that day; the next day a friend would come over. Lena’s biggest worry is seizures: She has had four since her cancer was first diagnosed. But she has other worries as well. She shaved her head when radiation and chemotherapy made her glossy black locks fall out in clumps. The steroids that keep her brain from swelling cause water retention, and she’s had to adopt a special diet. What does she miss most? “A hamburger,” she moaned. “No! A hot dog from Sonic!”
Each day, in fact, starts with an inventory of aches and pains. “Where does it hurt?” she asks herself. “What’s uncomfortable today?” Doctors can’t give her a definitive prognosis. “They all say the same thing—nobody knows. Some people live for a long time, some for a short time. If I get five more years, I’ll get to see [her thirteen-year-old son] Leo Junior graduate [from high school]. If you gave me twenty, then I might get to meet the grandchildren.”
Clearly she is focused on what she hopes will be a long future. When our conversation turned to the lieutenant governor’s race, Lena marveled over how it could change the composition of the Texas Senate—enough, she believes, that she has a shot at getting her Tigua casino bill through the Legislature in 2003. “I’m gonna pass it next time,” she insisted with the conviction of a survivor.