Remembering Tim Kelly

Posted: Friday, August 21, 2009

I was home suffering from the flu this past Monday, feeling like I'd been run over by a dump truck. My physical ailments, while very unpleasant, dissipated when a friend called with sad news: Tim Kelly, my former boss, had passed away in his sleep Monday afternoon.

Woozy and feverish, I didn't quite know how to react. My thoughts cleared with the passing of a few days, but I'm more sad now than before.

To those who may not have known him, Tim Kelly was a legislator from Anchorage for more than two decades. I knew him by name only at first, but I didn't meet him in person until after I first came to Juneau to work for the Legislature in the early 1990s. In 1990, Tim had decided not to seek re-election to the state Senate and instead ran for Lieutenant Governor (after achieving the legislative pinnacle of state Senate president). That was a crazy year in Alaska politics (but what year isn't?) and Tim narrowly lost primary election to state Sen. Jack Coghill. The top spot on the Republican ticket in the primary went to state Sen. Arliss Stugulewski; she and Coghill had been paired by the voters to run together, but that didn't happen.

Things changed when former Gov. Wally Hickel announced his intentions to run on the Alaska Independence Party (AIP) ticket. Coghill also registered AIP, bailing on Arliss. Jerry Ward dropped out of the race, and the Hickel/Coghill ticket went on to trounce both the Democratic Knowles/Hensley and the Republican Sturgulewski/Campbell tickets. Thankfully, Tim Kelly didn't give up on politics. He ran again for his state Senate seat in 1992, and returned to serve out a distinguished legislative career.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was a Republican when I worked for Tim Kelly, and I remain one today (in fact, I am currently co-chairman of the Capital City Republicans). Some may say that's the only reason I have anything nice to say about Tim, but those critics couldn't be more wrong. Tim was a fierce partisan when he set about doing his legislative job, but he was as open-minded and nonpartisan as any one I've ever known when he dealt with people one-on-one, including Democrats. This week, I have heard as many kind words from Democrats saddened by Tim's untimely death as from Republicans. Tim Kelly earned those praises by being fair and honorable.

When I started as a legislative aide in 1991, Tim Kelly wasn't working in the Capitol, but his dear friend, Sen. Bettye Fahrenkamp, was in office, and she was dying of cancer. Fahrenkamp was gone most that session, and she died before it ended. When Tim was reelected, he promptly set about ensuring that Bettye Fahrenkamp would be remembered and spearheaded the effort to have a committee room named in her honor. Mind you, this was after the Republicans had taken over the Alaska House and Senate. Without Tim's ardent devotion it wouldn't have happened.

I went to work for Tim Kelly a few years later, and I was awed at how much he trusted his staff. He gave me bills to work on with clear marching orders, and off I went into the halls of the Capitol to do my best. It was inspiring and intimidating all at the same time, but we got Tim's bills through and in the process I learned how respected he was.

Tim was ultimately a realist, which drove both his choice of political party and loyalty to it. It also allowed him to see things from the other side of the equation, and to negotiate with others to find compromise. While not everything was on the table, that which could be negotiated was, because Tim Kelly knew that at the end of the day, no one wanted to go home a loser. Tim's innate kindness and belief in the need for compromise for the legislative process to work led to him to help so many people who otherwise would never have expected his assistance.

I learned many things as a legislative aide, most of them from Tim Kelly. At the end of the day, you really only have your word, so make sure that when you give it, you keep it. If you try to be all things to all people, you'll end up being next to nothing to almost every one. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that life is finite and that we have to accomplish our life's work in the amount of time we're given, which is a mystery up until it's too late to know.

Tim Kelly survived a heart attack more than a decade ago when he was still in the Alaska Senate, and I remember how profoundly grateful I was at the time that he made it through. But I'm as sad as can be that he's gone now, so suddenly, and at the age of 65. I guess it's just one more lesson he's taught me, and I'll learn to be grateful for that too.

• Ben Brown is a lifelong Alaskan and attorney living in Juneau.

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