Goodbye to Dick Kelley, 71, Renaissance Man of Local Politics

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Last week, Seattle laid to rest a true renaissance man, and one of the best local politicians we managed never to quite elect. Dick Kelley died too young at 71, of a sudden, unexpected cardiac arrest. He left behind a grieving band of Democrats, fellow liberals, and dear friends. But he also left amazing footprints in the political sands.

Difficult to tally all Dick Kelley’s “bests” and “firsts,” beginning with his meteoric academic accomplishments: Seattle Prep grad at 16, a Harvard degree at 19, and University of Washington doctorate achieved in just three years. During his school years he chalked up a perfect SAT score and highest GRE seen at the UW’s political science department.

Tales of Kelley’s political achievements leave the reader dizzy. He started politics during his Harvard years, running for president of the National Young Democrats against an older kid from New York. (The New York kid, Chuck Schumer, won.) Kelley participated in Harvard’s antiwar demonstrations in the ‘60s supporting Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Cesar Chavez.  Later, when he discovered the CIA funding of the Young Democrats, he quit in disgust.

Kelley returned to his home state in 1969 to work as deputy auditor for Don Bonker in Clark County. In 1975, he campaigned for the King County Council, losing by a handful of votes. The following year, age 26, he was running Morris Udall’s presidential campaign in Washington. 

As a delegate to the 1976 Democratic Convention in New York City, Kelley nominated Karen Marchioro as vice chair of the Washington delegation. According to his friend Max Vekich, Kelley’s successful move, a compromise between warring party factions, led to creation of legislative districts that, in Vekich’s reckoning, “turned Washington blue.”  

The following year, Marchioro persuaded Kelley to take over Charley Royer’s failing mayoral campaign (Royer had slipped to fifth or sixth in the crowded mayoral race). After helping Royer win, Kelley served as Seattle’s deputy mayor, sharing the deputy’s job with Bob Royer, the mayor’s brother. The plaque on Kelley’s desk read: “Half the buck stops here.”

During the hard-fought 1977 Royer campaign, Kelley met his future wife, Theresa Doyle, then a 21-year-old reporter at the Seattle Sun, a newspaper started by Kelley’s buddies, including Nick Licata. Doyle likes to tell the story of how Kelley, as Royer’s campaign manager, had to quit writing for the Sun. Doyle jokes, “He lost his $15 weekly paycheck.” It was a loss Dick didn’t regret in 1980 when the two married. Doyle had agonized over marrying, but her mother Katie had concluded, “a good sense of humor covers a lot of sins.” 

After getting his doctorate in 1983, Kelley taught political science at the University of Washington and then moved with Theresa to St. Mary’s College in Morago, California. Returning to Seattle in 1986, Kelley launched Critical Ventures, a development firm that built low-income housing units in Belltown, many of which are  in service today. 

Kelley’s developer days were interwoven with political campaigns and important positions like chairing the Pollution Control and Shorelines Board in the 1990s. It was Marchioro again in 1992 who insisted that Kelley file at the last minute for Lieutenant Governor. He lost that race, partly due to his refusing contributions from lobbyists. But, even in losing, he managed an unusual coup.

Appearing before the very conservative Tri-City Herald editorial board in Kennewick, he walked into the room and said, “Hi, I’m Daniel. You must be the lions.” All the white male suits laughed and, against all odds, gave Kelley their endorsement. Humor won; Kelley didn’t.

During the Clinton administration, Kelley served as director for Health and Human Services, Region X, championing universal health care and better care for LGBTQ patients. After Al Gore’s defeat, Kelley went to work for Washington’s House Democratic Caucus, pushing bills such as permanent financing for low-income housing through a real estate transaction tax.

In 2006, Kelley ran again — this time for a 43rd District House seat. His platform included expanding LGBTQ rights, combating climate change, and limiting campaign contributions. He refused any contribution over $100 and, once again, lost an election. Some today believe Kelley was the state’s best never-elected office holder.

One thing not to be forgotten was Kelley’s fierce backing and helping his wife get through law school. Doyle says, “I became convinced that I wasn’t smart enough to be a lawyer. Dick said, ‘Of course, you’re smart enough. You just need to study.’ Study I did, convinced otherwise I’d flunk out. Instead, I made the law review.” Next was appellate public defender and a judgeship. Doyle retired this year after serving in Seattle municipal and King County superior courts. In his retirement, Kelley lent support to Doyle’s continued work on criminal and racial justice reform. 

Kelley’s retirement allowed him time to write four Seattle mystery novels, including his first published book, A Name to Die For. He had time to travel (including three recent weeks with Theresa in Italy), watch the Mariners every night, and read Irish poetry. 

Doyle reports that Kelley was very proud of his Irish heritage, although his brother Bob (one of  seven Kelley siblings) took a DNA test and said the figure was only 22 percent. Still Dick insisted “he’d gotten all the Irish genes, his sibs the rest.” This bit of blarney is known as one of the most famous of “Dickie’s facts.” 

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Sadden to learn of Dick’s passing, but appreciate your thoughtful words that capture the essence of his life. Shortly after our first meeting, I selected him to be the Deputy County Auditor. A bit awkward at the time, he was so young to take on major responsibilities, but as you describe — wherever he served, there were accomplishments. Your article on the Renaissance Man will be treasured by all who knew Dick Kelly. Don

  2. Very nice story by Jean Godden. Renaissance Man is a perfect title. I knew Dick from about 1973 on. Met him when he chaired the horrid, huge, meeting where the county dems threw out their then chair and elected Karen Marchioro. After that I began intensely volunteering at the KCDCC office, mostly because I was so impressed by Dick Kelly. I helped in his campaigns, sadly losing. I had not known of his association with Don Bonker and Clark County. I had met Don and then auditor Ron Dotzauer during the 1976 Carter campaign. Like many others, I count Dick as one of my favorite political people and will miss him enormously.

  3. Wonderful tribute to a fabulous person, who contributed so much to the city, the Democratic Party and the government at all levels. I knew him for 30 years and no one ever mentioned his scholastic achievements, but in the context of his whole story, of a life so well lived, I guess the academics are a small part. It’s been a tough year for Seattle’s progressive community — so sad for his family and all his friends. Barb Benscoter (formerly Barbara Brannan).

  4. I was a latecomer to Dick’s orbit. Came to Seattle in 2001 and didn’t get very political until Howard Dean came along. I served on the EBoard of the 43rd during his chairmanship, a truly fun experience.

    I wasn’t aware that he’d run the WA Udall campaign in 1976. Had I been, I would have enjoyed pointing out that I was probably the only person in the country who cast a presidential vote for Mo twice. I did that by moving from early-primary MA to late-primary KY in that year. Dick would have gotten a chuckle out of that.

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