SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California state Sen. Sharon Runner, who left the Legislature in 2012 after receiving a double lung transplant and three years later made a dramatic return to the Senate, died Thursday, her family said in a statement. She was 62.
Runner, a Republican from Lancaster, died at home following respiratory complications.
Runner and her husband, George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, were a powerful force in the California GOP.
They were the first couple to serve concurrently in the Legislature after Sharon Runner won her husband's Assembly seat in 2002, when he moved up to the Senate.
The duo co-authored California's Jessica's Law, approved by voters in 2006 to restrict sex offenders from living near parks, schools and other places where children congregate.
Sharon Runner often called herself "the funner Runner" compared with her more serious husband.
She was absent from the Legislature for much of this year after her health again took a turn for the worse, and she had opted not to seek re-election this year.
"We take comfort in the fact that the Lord truly directed her path, and she is now home in the arms of her Savior," Runner's family said in their statement.
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, spent the past two years seated next to Runner during floor debates and remembers her as an optimist who never backed down at the Capitol or in life.
"She had a very soft manner about her. But she was tough as nails and a real fighter," Anderson said. "Health-wise, the odds were against her, but she fought."
Before embarking on their political careers, the Runners co-founded Desert Christian Schools, which has grown to three campuses with nearly 1,700 students.
Sharon Runner was a conservative who served in the state Assembly from 2002 to 2008. She was elected to the Senate in 2011 but did not seek re-election in 2012 after her transplant.
She was treated for limited scleroderma, or CREST syndrome, an autoimmune condition that attacks the body's connective tissue.
After recovering, she won a special election last year and returned to the Senate. Her bill to allow the governor to cancel a special primary election and declare a candidate elected if there is only one qualified person on the ballot was sent to the governor's office for final consideration a day before her death.
Runner was a role model for Republican women in politics, said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, who served with Runner on the board of California Women Lead, which helps women run for office.
"She was one of the people who caused me to realize, you have to continue to push, to stand up for what you believe in," Olsen said. "She did it, and I think she made it easier for others of us to do the same."
With Jessica's Law, the Runners pioneered a strategy for Republicans to influence state policy despite being far outnumbered by Democrats in the Legislature, said Douglas Johnson, a research fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. They showed that conservatives could start a conversation in the Legislature, then build momentum before going directly to voters with a ballot initiative, he said.
"Most of the time, when we talk about political couples historically, the man holds the office and the woman is behind the scenes advising him," Johnson said. "They were not like that. She was often holding office, and they were an equal team."
Runner is the first California lawmaker to die in office since Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, died in 2010, said Alex Vassar, who studies legislative history and runs the One Voter Project website.
Following her high-profile illness and recovery, Runner volunteered with organizations committed to increasing organ donations.
"It would be a great tribute to her memory for more Californians to sign up to be part of this vital program," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Alison Noon also contributed to this story.