Illinois State Sen. Penny Severns, who battled cancer and political opposition, died early Saturday at her home in Decatur. She was 46.
Severns died surrounded by family members, including her identical twin sister, and a few close friends. Severns spokeswoman Terry Mutchler said the senator was alert.
Severns had bowed out of the Democratic race for secretary of state just two days ago, after a setback in her four-year-long battle with cancer and concluding she could not afford the cost of a legal fight to stay on the primary ballot. The State Board of Elections had recently removed Severns' name from the ballot after agreeing with supporters of a rival candidate that she had filed fewer than the 5,000 valid signatures required on her nominating petitions.
Even in defeat, Severns was defiant, issuing a statement Thursday through a spokeswoman at a Statehouse news conference that she herself was too ill to attend.
"I believe with all my heart that I am right and that the challenge to my petitions was an underhanded effort to deny the voters of Illinois a choice to support me for the office of secretary of state," she said.
Friends recalled that even when Severns again began to struggle with chemotherapy treatments early in the year and was forced to reduce her public appearances, she worked hard for her constituents from her home.
And there was a simple reason, they said.
"She loves the people she represents," said Rep. Julie Curry, another Decatur Democrat, before Severns' death.
Severns' serious health problems first surfaced in July 1994 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer during her unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.
In December 1995, the cancer spread to Severns' lungs, and she underwent a bone marrow transplant. Doctors removed a nickel-sized tumor from her skull last December.
She was expected to undergo a third round of chemotherapy later in February, during a six-day hospitalization that began after she complained of shortness of breath, but that was delayed after her condition worsened.
"While my faith is not something I wear on my sleeve, I have an unshakable belief in a living God who can restore me to full health," she said.
When state Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch and Severns won the Democratic nomination in 1994, it was the first time in the nation that women won a major party nomination and ran as a team for governor and lieutenant governor.
During Severns' legislative career, which began in 1987, she was a leading negotiator for Senate Democrats on the state budget and an advocate for breast-cancer awareness.
Her youngest sister, Marsha Severns Hamilton, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 31 and died five years later in 1992. Severns' identical twin, Patty Severns Love, was diagnosed in 1990 and is in remission.
Severns was born Jan. 21, 1952. She graduated from Southern Illinois University n 1974 with a degree in political science and international relations.
At age 20, she was a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Seven years later she ran for Congress and lost. In 1983, she was elected to the Decatur city council. Three years later she won a seat in the state Senate, defeating a 10-year incumbent.
In 1ate 1993, Severns announced she was running for state comptroller. Before the year was finished, she decided to run for lieutenant governor.
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