Dick Kelley died on Monday, October 4th, 2021, at 71 years old of a sudden cardiac arrest. He will be remembered fondly as a brilliant and courageous man who loved his family, and loved this city.
Dick was one of seven children born to Jim Kelley and Dorothy MacArthur. A wunderkind, Dick recorded a perfect SAT score—a feat matched only by his older brother Tom. He graduated Seattle Prep at 16 years old and earned academic scholarships that made it possible for him to attend Harvard, where he received his diploma at 19 with honors.
After Al Gore lost the 2000 election, he went to work for the House Democratic Caucus, where he proposed and pushed through a bill providing permanent financing for low-income housing through a real estate transactions tax.
At Harvard, he saw up close that the rich and privileged are no better than you or I, but had extraordinary privilege and resources at their disposal. This experience shaped his lifelong political commitment to taxing the rich, civil rights, labor over capital, strengthening the safety net, health care and housing as rights, and environmental protection.
Dick returned to Washington state to begin his political career in service of regular people, starting as the deputy auditor of Clark County in 1969.
For fun one summer, Dick took a speed reading course. By the end he could read—and comprehend—faster than the machine could turn the pages.
In 1975, at age 25, he campaigned for county council along with Mike Lowry on a growth management and farmlands preservation platform when those terms were barely in our collective vocabulary. He lost by a handful of votes but brought awareness to the rampant development that would threaten Seattle’s natural beauty.
At 26, Dick ran Morris Udall’s 1976 presidential campaign in Washington. Udall nearly beat Jimmy Carter for the nomination. The next year he turned Charley Royer’s failing mayoral campaign into a winner in a matter of months. That summer he met his future wife, former King County Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle. She was then a reporter for the Seattle Sun, a progressive newspaper started by (among others) Dick’s lifelong friend and former City Council President Nick Licata.
As deputy mayor under Charley Royer, Dick was in charge of personnel and forced reluctant city department heads to immediately implement affirmative action hiring practices — a concept most supported but few had the courage to carry out.
“I had worked for the City just long enough to know how deep job discrimination went,” he said. “I saw fixing this as a moral imperative.”
A reliable friend to labor, after his term in the Mayor’s office he served on the Seattle Civil Service Commission and on the Washington Personnel Board. The right to organize was fundamental, he knew, and necessary to counter the power of corporations.
Dick earned his PhD at the University of Washington in 1983 after only three years, writing his dissertation while watching reruns of 1970s TV shows such as WKRP and Night Court. His GRE score was the highest in the history of the political science department. Dick taught political science at UW and then moved to the Bay Area with Theresa to teach at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California.
Returning to Seattle in 1986, Dick built low-income housing through his brainchild firm, Critical Ventures, including many buildings that remain in service today in Belltown. He was among the first to promote “housing first” rather than forcing drug and alcohol tests on the homeless.
Running for lieutenant governor in 1992, Dick made the unprecedented decision to accept zero lobbyist campaign contributions. Like anyone paying attention, he knew money created institutional corruption and was an existential threat to democracy.
He met considerable backlash for this and other progressive views of his, and when he met with the Tri-City Herald editorial board in Kennewick, he charmed them with a Biblical reference. He walked into the room and said, “I’m Daniel. You must be the lions.” They burst out laughing, and he won their endorsement — though he fell short in a tight race to Republican incumbent Joel Pritchard.
As chair of the Pollution Control and Shorelines Hearings Board in the 1990s, Dick issued important and controversial decisions, such as classifying farm-raised salmon as pollutants, and he fought to preserve thousands of acres from development. Later, he worked for King County Executive Ron Sims, identifying surplus county land for conversion to housing for the homeless.
During the Clinton Administration, Dick was appointed Regional Director for Health and Human Services, Region X, following Jay Inslee. There he championed universal healthcare as well as better healthcare for LGBTQ people.
In 2006, he ran for the state Legislature on a platform of expanding LGBTQ rights, combatting climate change, and limiting campaign contributions to protect our elections. He did not accept a single donation over $100.
On the campaign trail he told The Stranger, “I don’t believe in compromising on things that are basic human rights. The sort of thing you have to go to the wall for.”
Dick enjoyed a wonderful retirement. He wrote four mystery novels set in Seattle, read Irish poetry and detective novels, traveled around the world, encouraged Theresa’s efforts on racial justice in the courts, and watched the Mariners every night.
And he never gave a dime to Harvard fundraisers.