CLEARWATER — When she ran against incumbent state Rep. Ed Hooper in 2010, Shelly Leonard wasn't your typical candidate. She was a 37-year-old single mother and cancer survivor.
The feisty Democrat made her cancer history a part of her stump speech, talking about the need to make health insurance more accessible. More than 16,000 people voted for her in Clearwater-based House District 50. But nearly 24,000 voted to keep her opponent in office, so Leonard went back to her job as a social worker.
Last year, her oral cancer returned. On Saturday, she died due to complications from chemotherapy, just days before her 39th birthday. "She was fighting the cancer valiantly," said her friend and campaign treasurer, Van Farber. "She passed away peacefully, without pain, and surrounded by members of her immediate family."
As a candidate, Leonard was known for taking her two young sons with her on the campaign trail to teach them about the democratic process.
Her sons — Quinn, 16, and Nathan, 14 — are now with their father in Michigan.
"She was a very enthusiastic candidate, so young and with so much promise," said Rich Piper, president of the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic Club.
After the 2010 election, Leonard remained active in Democratic politics and involved in efforts to reopen the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Clearwater.
Last summer Leonard collapsed after speaking at the St. Pete Pride gay rights event in St. Petersburg. Doctors discovered her cancer had returned, Aggressive chemotherapy left Leonard with a weakened immune system, resulting in pneumonia.
"She was a great Democrat. She was hugely involved with her community," said Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith. "Even when it was evident that her health was a problem, she was still fired up about the upcoming elections."
A celebration of her life is planned for Saturday evening, Feb. 25, in the ballroom at the Fort Harrison Hotel. Leonard was not a Scientologist, but the Church of Scientology offered the venue for the event because it agreed with Leonard's stance on reopening the MLK Center, Farber said.
"She was really a fine person, a very interesting person. She spoke with intelligence and compassion," said Zell Savitz, spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Palm Harbor, where Leonard attended services. "I saw her in her last stages. Even then, she had a lot of theological questions. She was always very intellectually oriented and emotionally involved."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To submit a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.