Chris Kelly knows people. Chances are, you probably know him. Or at least you’ve seen him in a green polo on his bike, riding through Columbia subdivisions. Maybe you’ve seen him going door to door in Ashland or making apple butter at the VFW in Hartsburg.
If you don’t know Kelly, you’ll probably meet him soon if you're in Missouri’s 24th House District, where the Democrat is seeking to replace incumbent Republican Ed Robb as state representative.
Kelly has been going door-to-door nearly every day since announcing his candidacy for the 24th District seat back in September 2007. He is committed to knocking on 10,000 doors in a district of 35,000 voters. At just more than 9,000, he’s nearly there.
As he travels the district , Kelly finds himself talking to old friends as much as introducing himself to Columbia and southern Boone County residents. He likes to think he has a certain degree of familiarity with voters in Boone County.
“Well when you’ve been involved in the public life for as long as I have,” Kelly said, “you’d have a tough time not knowing so many folks.”
Kelly’s record of public service in Columbia is as lengthy as his goal of knocking on 10,000 doors is lofty. He started in 1976 when he volunteered to coordinate Dick Farmer’s campaign for the Boone County court, now the Boone County Commission. Shortly after that, he took over as county clerk in 1977, a position he held until 1982.
After that it was onto the General Assembly, where he represented western Columbia and parts of Boone County until 1994, pushing what he said were many pieces of vital legislation and chairing the House Budget Committee for three years.
Kelly went on to become chairman of the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission for six years and followed that up with a six-year stint as an associate judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes Boone and Callaway counties.
“My career has been a series of jobs,” Kelly said. “I like to do something and work on it, get it right, and then do something else.”
Along the way, Kelly has made a career of talking with people. He’s comfortable on the floor of the legislature or on the stump at a Democratic luncheon, but he belongs where he can be out pounding the pavement.
“The most important thing a lawmaker can do is get out there and talk to people,” he said. “Make sure that people know you’ll listen and you’ll actually try to get something done on their problems.”
Kelly is quick with a quip or an anecdote. He’s not afraid to talk in-depth on an issue or to tell you how he really feels. Sometimes this can lead to problems.
“It’s hard to resist the temptation to argue with non-like minded voters,” Kelly said. “But I think I’m getting better at it.”
After an eventful career, he came out of retirement to put out fires in Jefferson City. He was approached by old friends who worked at MU for many years.
“They said ‘Chris, we’re getting our heads kicked in,’” Kelly recounts. “They asked me to consider running again because they remember that I’ll go to bat for MU and not just pay it lip service.”
Kelly sees MU as an invaluable institution, one he thinks has gotten the short end in recent legislative sessions. He particularly abhors the legislature’s tendency to politicize research and knowledge. When lawmakers in Jefferson City start talking about stem cells and academic diversity, Kelly’s gloves come off.
“In the legislature there is a general climate of contempt for the idea of research and knowledge in regards to the effort to limit stem-cell research,” Kelly said.
“Politicians ought not to be telling the academy what they should or should not do. It’s unconstitutional contempt for education and knowledge.”
Since that meeting with MU professors, Kelly has been out raising money, making phone calls and — yes —knocking on doors. Whereas his opponent’s career led him to politics, Kelly has always been in politics. It’s no surprise to him though; in some ways, he never had a choice.
“My parents were very active Democrats,” he said. “Growing up, we talked politics at the dinner table.”
Kelly’s parents grew up during the Great Depression and both served during World War II. He credits his hard work ethic and his sense of civic duty to them.
Kelly came to Columbia with his wife, federal judge Nanette Laughery, to start a family and to go to law school. In his 32 years as a resident of the city, he’s no longer an up-state New Yorker . He is proud to be a Missourian.
Although he has worn many hats in his 32 years here in Columbia, he feels the one that fits him best is that of a legislator. Others agree.
“Chris is best suited for this district,” said Rep. Jeff Haris, D-Columbia. “He’ll be the best of the candidates because he will be a strong voice for the universities and for working families.”
Harris might have been too young to remember much about Kelly’s performance as a legislator during the 1980s and ’90s, but one colleague certainly remembers.
“(Kelly) is a natural legislator,” said former Gov. Roger Wilson. “His prior service is exemplary, and it is his intellect and his aggressiveness that have served his district well.”
Wilson and Kelly became good friends long before their work in Jefferson City. During Kelly’s tenure as Boone County clerk, Wilson served as the county collector. At the Capitol, Wilson was the state senator for the 19th District when Kelly got elected to the Missouri House.
“It was unique to have me as a chair on the (Senate) budget committee and eventually have Chris as budget chair in the House,” Wilson said. “The work we did on the budget was extremely good, as well as his work for higher education.”
Wilson thinks Kelly’s record of service speaks for itself. So does Kelly.
Democrats controlled the House while Kelly was there, and he led the movement to build the Katy Trail, to bring Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance to Columbia. In particular, he personally worked with then-Republican Gov. John Ashcroft to bring $800 million in federal dollars to Missouri health care programs.
“One of the biggest differences between me and my opponent is our records,” Kelly said. “I find (Robb) was just there when good things happened. I talk about things I actually helped along.”
Kelly is not daunted by the prospect of serving in the minority party. It won’t change his agenda for education or health care. He says he has always been able to “reach across the aisle” to get something done. Wilson said that’s true.
“Chris was always exceedingly fair regardless of partisan strife or the urban, rural divide,” Wilson said. “Matter of fact, the General Assembly could use a strong dose of that right now. It’s too partisan now.”
Kelly wants to mend a legislative process he thinks has been pulled apart by partisan rancor.
“I differed on many substantive issues with Republicans when I served,” Kelly said. “But at the end of the day, we were able be civil and go out for dinner.”
Kelly said he’s ready to put policy above politics.
“The great British philosopher Edmund Burke once said, ‘Manners are more important than laws,’” Kelly explained. “If all I accomplish as a legislator is to contribute to a return to civility, I would feel very successful.”
Kelly, who has never lost an election, realizes this campaign pits him against the most formidable foe he’s ever faced, a moderate conservative with a history at MU and an indisputable expertise oneconomic matters. He knows it will be a hard-fought contest, but he believes he’ll be the one going to bat for Boone County come January.
“This race will come down to a couple hundred doors and 1,500 votes,” Kelly said. “It’s a race to the middle-of-the-road voters.”
He credits his strengths as a candidate and a legislator to what he learned while serving as county clerk 30 years ago.
“In doing the day-to-day maintenance,” Kelly said, “I learned the practical things people want government to do, and more importantly, what they don’t want government to do.”
Within minutes of meeting Kelly, one can tell he is an outspoken thinker as well as an eager actor. He applies the rigor and attention he gives to his campaigning and his policy to his recreational life.
“I love the outdoors, I just love to camp and be far away, out in the woods,” said Kelly, who is an avid whitewater canoeist. Last October he canoed the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, spending nearly 18 days at the mercy of rapids.
The way he tackles rapids is the same way he tackles life.
“In whitewater canoeing, there are no excuses,” he explains. “Either you get it right or you swim. You have to stay alert and deal with the elements as they exist.”
PERSONAL: 62. He is married to Nanette Laughrey. They have two children and a grandson.
PARTY AFFILIATION: Democrat
OCCUPATION: Most recently worked as an associate circuit judge in Boone County.
EDUCATION: Bachelors of arts in history from Marist College; juris doctorate from MU.
BACKGROUND: Member of the Boone County Muleskinners, the Rotary Club, the American Whitewater Affiliation and the Missouri Whitewater Association. He attends Our Lady of Lourdes Parish.