CLEARWATER — When she ran against incumbent state Rep. Ed Hooper last year, Shelly Leonard wasn't your typical candidate. She was a 37-year-old single mother — and a survivor of oral cancer.
The feisty Democrat made her cancer history a part of her stump speech, talking about the need to make health insurance accessible to more people. "My tongue is scarred," she would say on the campaign trail, "but I have a strong voice."
More than 16,000 people voted for her in Clearwater-based House District 50. But nearly 24,000 voted to keep Republican Hooper in office, so Leonard went back to her job as a social worker.
Now she's facing some bad news. Leonard's oral cancer has returned. She's scheduled to undergo major surgery today at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
"She's having surgery to remove four malignant tumors," said her friend and campaign treasurer, Van Farber. "After they remove the tumors, there's a question of how much of her tongue will be left after surgery — will she be able to talk in her normal voice, or just a whisper?"
As tough as that is, it's actually an improvement over what her prognosis had been. As recently as six weeks ago, Leonard was told that her tumors were so large, she could lose part of her chin and some of her teeth and would need significant reconstructive surgery.
"The most positive thing is, her tumors have shrunk since then," Farber said. "Her doctors are still saying this will be a multiple-year recovery.
"She's a fighter. She intends to beat it. She did once before."
Leonard, now 38, wasn't available to comment Wednesday. She's being cared for at the home of an aunt in Safety Harbor who's a retired oncology nurse.
Since last year's election, she's remained active in Democratic politics. She's also been involved in efforts to save the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Clearwater, which is slated to be closed. Her cancer resurfaced when she collapsed in June after speaking at the St. Pete Pride gay rights event in St. Petersburg, Farber said.
During her 2010 campaign, Leonard blasted the Republican-dominated Legislature as broken and corrupt. She lost the race by a 60-to-40 margin, but she noted that it turned out to be a tough election for Democrats in general. She had been strongly considering running for office again.
Hooper, Leonard's former opponent, had expected her to run against him next year. He was saddened to hear about her medical setback.
"Politics is one thing and health is another," said Hooper, of Clearwater. "I wish her a successful surgery and recovery. I wish her well."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151.