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Kate Kelly

"It's someone else's turn now."

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Kate Kelly is sitting this Election Day out. After six years in the Idaho Legislature, Kelly decided to step down as one of only seven Democrats in the 35-member state Senate.

"You have truly enhanced my life," said Kelly on March 29, the final day of the 2010 session. "It's been a wonderful experience."

Kelly is a single mom to three sons: a 20- year-old studying pre-med at Tufts University in Boston, a 19-year-old who will soon start the University of Idaho's pre-law program, and a 16-year-old at Boise High.

When BW sat down with Kelly on Oct. 15 to talk politics, the conversation was a bit melancholy. Her friend and colleague Sen. Clint Stennett had passed away several hours earlier. Following a long battle with brain cancer, Stennett died at his Ketchum home at the age of 54.

What are your memories of the late senator?

What a guy. Clint was so gracious.

To me, he had the most wonderful sense of humor. I was looking at some old pictures of him and he was smiling in everyone one of them. Clint was probably my mentor more than anybody. I had worked in the State Attorney General's Office for five years and the Department of Environmental Quality for six years. I helped write laws and I regularly testified before the legislature, and sometimes I thought, "I could do that job," and in some cases I thought, "I could do that job better." So the first person I called was Clint Stennett and he gave me more encouragement than anyone.

Do you think politics is a noble profession?

Absolutely. I believe more than ever in our democracy. It's a beautiful system contingent on elections, but voters need to make informed decisions and stay engaged.

So why did you step away?

People always say to me "the politics must have just worn you down." But that wasn't it at all. My problem was that before I ran for office, I had never thought about what a financial stress it would be.

What does the position of state senator pay?

$16,000 a year. While I served in the legislature, I applied for a couple of legal jobs that I really wanted. The employers said "we'd love to have you, but we can't let you go for three, four or five months a year." What put me over the edge was when I became Minority Leader two years ago. It's essentially a full time job. I had to supervise staff and travel across the state regularly for committee, commission and task force meetings. And of course, every two years I had competitive campaigns to run.

How much did it cost you to run?

I had to raise $80,000 every time. And I find it hard to believe when I hear about some legislators waging a campaign for only $30,000.

How do you handicap the race for governor between Keith Allred and C.L. "Butch" Otter?

Keith has done a great job and come so far with his political base. But Gov. Otter is sophisticated, and I think people are very loyal to incumbents and the bar is that much higher. Sometimes I think incumbents have to do what Larry Craig did before they have to lose.

Do you think the next legislative session will be even more austere?

I do. If Otter gets re-elected and the State Senate takes a further turn to the right, I think it's going to get uglier.

What's the state of the Democratic Party in Idaho?

We have a difficult time growing our "farm team." Because Democrats hardly hold any major statewide offices and can't make key appointments, it's difficult to nurture new political talent. At least Congressman Walt Minnick has afforded us some of those opportunities.

Aren't there a slew of Republican legislators who will retire soon?

They've been saying that for years. But they hang on. We have the oldest legislature in the country. Have you seen those pictures at the Capitol of lawmakers 10 or 20 years ago? It's the same guys as today.

You known, people stop me all the time in the grocery store telling me they were disappointed that I had stepped down. I've received hundreds of e-mails and letters from across the state saying how disappointed they were in my decision. It was like a knife in my heart every time. I had no idea that I had touched so many people. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, my new response is, "It's someone else's turn now. Why don't you run for public office?" I put in my six years. Maybe I inspired someone else to run.

But isn't it possible that some day you might return to politics?

Everything's possible. Even in Idaho.

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