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Former railroad commissioner Guerrero dies

AUSTIN -- Former Texas Railroad Commissioner Lena Guerrero -- a one-time rising star among Texas Democrats whose political career fell apart over false claims about her academic credentials -- has died.

Guerrero, 50, had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2000. She died in her sleep early Thursday in Austin, according to a family representative.

Guerrero served 20 months on the Texas Railroad Commission after having been appointed by Gov. Ann Richards in 1991. Guerrero was the first woman and first Mexican-American to serve on the panel.

Known for her hard-ball political style and her quick intellect, Guerrero appeared poised to go far in Texas politics after taking a seat on the commission. But her political career unraveled after humiliating revelations that she lacked the diploma she had been claiming for a dozen years.

Until 1992, Guerrero had identified herself as a 1980 honors graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of science degree. Her official résumés also falsely listed Guerrero as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a national academic honors society.

But university transcripts showed that Guerrero passed 87 of 119 hours she took between September 1976 and December 1979. Guerrero asked for the public's forgiveness and resigned, and then campaigned to regain the seat. She lost the statewide election in November, 1992.

In a 1996 interview with the Associated Press, Guerrero called the events of that year the most difficult of her life.

"For me, the issue has long been not how you fall, but how you get up," she said. "People make mistakes every day in their lives. It's only when they get played out on the 6 o'clock news every day ... that other people begin to pass judgment on that."

Guerrero also served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1984 until 1991, and was the second Hispanic woman to do so, according to a family representative. She represented a central Austin district as a Democrat, and was only 25 years old when she won the seat, according to a family representative.

In the Legislature, Guerrero became a close friend and ally to Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, who would eventually become the speaker of the House.

"She was a very smart individual, and she was very tenacious," said Laney. "But she was also very practical in her political endeavors and she never did waiver from her philosophical beliefs. In the House, she worked hard to represent her constituents."

After leaving public office, Guerrero became a successful lobbyist. A Texas Ethics Commission report for 1995 shows payments from her clients ranging from $365,000 to about $800,000.

Gov. Rick Perry, who served with Guerrero in the House, directed state offices to fly flags at half-staff on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

"Lena Guerrero was a bright, passionate woman who worked hard to represent the interests of her constituents both as a representative and as railroad commissioner," Perry said in a statement. "I came to know and admire her both as an esteemed colleague and a friend. ... Our state is a better place for her time spent in it and she will be greatly missed."

Public visitation with the family is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at Mission Funeral Home, 6204 S. First St. in Austin, with a rosary to follow at 7:30 p.m. in the funeral home's Serenity Chapel.

A mass is scheduled at 9 a.m. Saturday at Austin's Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, followed by internment at the Texas State Cemetery. There will be a reception at the cemetery after that.

A family representative said that Guerrero is survived by her husband, Lionel "Leo" Aguirre and son Leo G. Aguirre.