NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. -- Eleanor Slater, a former Democratic lawmaker and party activist praised for her work on mental health and fair-housing issues, has died. She was 97.
Ms. Slater died Saturday at Roberts Health Center, according to Dawn Clavin, a nursing supervisor there.
Known as a pioneer for women in Rhode Island politics, Ms. Slater took on many roles throughout her nearly 20-year career in public office. She was a four-term state representative who went on to serve in the state Senate, and headed the former state Division on Aging.
She also was a fixture at Democratic National conventions, often carrying an oversized stuffed donkey nicknamed Rhody and sporting outrageous hats.
''She was tough. She was strong: head strong, strong will, strong direction, strong sense of ethics," her son, Thomas, told The Providence Journal.
Ms. Slater first ran for office in 1958 when she was 50 years old. She won her first term in the state House by six votes, then was overwhelmingly reelected three more times. She then jumped to the Senate for a term.
At the State House, Ms. Slater sponsored the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and cosponsored the Community Mental Health Act, which created the state scholarship and student loan programs.
She also worked for the passage of legislation improving pension programs for schoolteachers, and was a leader in the fight to abolish the state Milk Control Board and remove price controls on the sale of milk.
''She is a legend in the state of Rhode Island and in the Democratic Party," said Frank Montanaro, the party's national committeeman and president of the state AFL-CIO. ''She really was the one who first got women involved in Democratic politics in Rhode Island."
Ms. Slater retired from the state Senate when she was 61, then led the Division of Aging for several years. She left that job in 1976, after 18 years in public office.
Three years later, at 70, she graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a political science degree.
Ms. Slater returned to URI as a graduate student and guest lecturer on aging.
In 1994, former governor Bruce Sundlun named Rhode Island's only state-funded hospital in honor of Ms. Slater.
''Rhode Island is a better place because of Eleanor Slater," Sundlun said at the time.
A funeral Mass will be said Thursday at 10 a.m. in St. Bernard's Church in North Kingstown.