St. Louis County Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, a self-described “Yellow Dog Democrat” who was quick to voice her opinion, often loudly and publicly, died Sunday (April 6, 2014).
Burkett had been battling uterine cancer for nearly a year. She died in the presence of family at her Overland home. She was 68.
“My heart is heavy right now but Kathy died the way she lived — on her own terms,” St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said in a statement. “My prayers are with her family and I know she’s resting in peace.”
Ms. Burkett was a longtime Democratic activist, running the county’s Democratic central committee from 1993 to 2000.
She was first elected to the council’s 2nd District in a 2002 special election. She was re-elected three times, most recently in 2012.
A special election to fill Ms. Burkett’s seat will be held as part of the general election on Nov. 4.
The county executive recalled when he first met her at the 1988 Democratic National Convention “after she spilled coffee all over me. We laughed about it and we’ve been close from that day.”
Indeed, Ms. Burkett was the council’s staunchest defender of the Dooley administration as it faced harsh criticism in recent years over issues ranging from the county executive’s threat to close county parks to the scandal surrounding a construction contract for a Dooley political appointee to the police board.
“She certainly was very loyal to the Dooley administration, and she expressed her opinions very strongly,” County Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, said Sunday.
Ms. Burkett did not back down from an argument.
At council meetings, she clashed with people who spoke during the public comments segment in favor of a countywide smoking ban, which she strongly opposed.
She also was not averse to feuding in public with members of the council, including those from her own party, such as Steve Stenger, D-South County, who is challenging Dooley in the August primary.
Their dust-ups aside, Stenger saluted Ms. Burkett on Sunday. “I had a lot of respect for Kathy, and she will be missed on the council,” he said.
Ms. Burkett was born into a politically active family. Her mother, Ruth Kelly, was the first woman elected as an alderman in Overland. Her father, Vince Kelly, was a Democratic state representative from 1969 to 1973.
“My mama was proud to call herself a ‘Yellow Dog Democrat,’” Ms. Burkett’s daughter, Lesley Ann Tiepelman, of Overland, said Sunday. That term has applied to people who assert that they would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican.”
“She shot straight from the hip,” Tiepelman said. “If she didn’t like you, she didn’t like you and she wasn’t afraid to let you know it.”
Her family had held the contract to run the Overland License Office and Ms. Burkett began working there for her mother in 1965. She took over management of the office in the early 1970s and held that position until 2005 when then-Gov. Matt Blunt awarded the Overland office to a different entity.
Since 2010, Ms. Burkett had managed the license office in Ferguson.
In 2012, she was briefly awarded the contract to run the lucrative Maplewood License Office until the state withdrew the contract after learning she had filed for bankruptcy and owed federal income taxes.
Before joining the County Council, Ms. Burkett was Democratic committeewoman of Midland Township from 1981 to 2000 and director of the Community Fire Protection District from 1994 to 2001.
Tiepelman noted that her mother had been raised Catholic but fell away from the faith as an adult.
However, her daughter said Ms. Burkett had re-embraced the faith in recent months and received sacraments that included the Last Rites.
“Her faith brought a lot of comfort to my mom in her final days,” Tiepelman said.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Burkett is survived by a son, Mark Steven Burkett, of Overland.
Funeral arrangements are pending.