Former California lawmaker Lucy Killea, a onetime military intelligence officer and aide to Eleanor Roosevelt who later shocked the political establishment when she left the Democratic Party to become an independent, and whose support for abortion rights prompted the Catholic Church to bar her from receiving Communion, has died. She was 94.
An American and Latin American historian, her political career began after then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, a Republican who went on to become governor, appointed her to a vacant seat on the City Council in 1978. She advanced to the Assembly in 1982 and then won a special election for the state Senate in 1989. In 1991, she announced to colleagues that she was leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent.
“Our system has become gridlocked by partisanship and a selfish status quo mentality that shakes the faith that people should have in their government,” Killea said at the time.
Sen. Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, said Killea’s passing was hard to believe and difficult to accept.
“She was a titan of public service in San Diego – at the top of the list of our most respected elected officials,” Atkins said. “She was strong, honest, funny, whip-smart, full of integrity and fearless. A role model for young women – including me – she was proud to have put a few cracks in the glass ceiling.”
“In the history of San Diego politics, I don’t think we’ve had anyone more respected and more widely loved than Lucy Killea,” added George Mitrovich, a veteran of The City Club of San Diego and The Denver Forum.
Killea is credited with helping to create the legislative women’s caucus and working to put in place a licensed midwife program.
Abortion rights emerged as a major issue in the campaign against Republican then-Assemblywoman Carol Bentley. Killea, who was Catholic, was pro-choice, a position that prompted the local bishop to notify Killea that she could no longer receive Communion. That drew national attention to the race.
Bishop Leo T. Maher, the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego, made the order, citing Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, contending Killea had put the church in the tough position.
“I don’t believe any other politician in the country has so flagrantly and blatantly and persistently taken a stand for abortion,” Maher said.
Killea, 67 years at the time, said she planned to continue going to Mass on Sundays. “It is not pleasant” to be singled out this way, she told The New York Times, “but, I came to my pro-choice position after a lot of thought. I’m satisfied with my position and what I do intellectually and emotionally.”
Killea was an Army intelligence officer during World War II. Her stint as an aide to Eleanor Roosevelt came during the first general assembly of the United Nations. Killea also spent nine years at the Central Intelligence Agency during the 1950s. Even in her later years, she remained active in civic affairs, and friends recalled her taking regular jogs on the beach.
“She had had what many people would consider a full career when she came to the Legislature,” said Craig Reynolds, Killea’s former chief of staff. “And she continued to have one after the Legislature.”
Steve Peace, the former lawmaker and finance director under Gov. Gray Davis, said he first started working with Killea’s office when he was an Assembly staffer running a district office and she served on the City Council. They went on to represent various regions of San Diego in the Legislature, growing close personally.
“As a young guy it didn’t take me long to figure out how smart she was,” Peace said, calling Killea “an extraordinary intellect and a great politician. She was clever and capable of not getting stuck in the ruts that politicians of our generation have unfortunately gotten trapped in.”
Peace said she also was the person he often turned to when he became “outraged over duplicitous behavior,” whether by colleagues or lobbyists.
“Many times she was the person I went to when I just felt I couldn’t take it anymore,” Peace said. “She would talk me off a cliff. She was stable and a calming force 100 percent of time.”
Killea received numerous honors and later became a potent sign of validation for young candidates running for local and state offices. She was inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame. Just last fall, she was named Mrs. San Diego at an event hosted by San Diego Rotary Club 33.
While her departure from the Democratic Party angered many of the party faithful in 1991, Killea handily defeated Republican Jim Ellis a year later in the redrawn 39th Senate District. She defended the move, which brought her closer in ideology to her Republican-leaning district.
“No matter how noble our innermost motivations are, no matter how solid our records individually,” Killea told her colleagues when she left the party, “the fact is that time after time, we give the public very good reason to think that our first priority is to make sure we get our full per diem, that our first priority is to carve out districts favorable to our own ambition, that our first priority is to maintain a hefty balance in our campaign treasury to discourage a challenger.”