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Persistence Pays : Tustin Council Winner Shows Pluck of the Irish

Times Staff Writer

As he campaigned this month for a Tustin City Council seat from an old Cadillac painted red, white and blue, “Honest” John Kelly, 24, seemed to personify the unorthodox local politician.

But the unorthodox finally paid off for Kelly, who had lost three previous elections for a council seat. On Tuesday night he won his first race since he began a political career in elementary school and later entered city politics as an 18-year-old candidate in 1980.

“We Irish never give up on anything,” Kelly said Wednesday in an interview frequently interrupted by well-wishers dropping by his family’s cluster of shops near downtown Tustin.

The fourth time was the charm for the Tustin native, who said his efforts to meet voters was what finally made him successful. Kelly, who received 20.7% of the vote, and incumbent Ursula E. Kennedy, with 28% of the vote, defeated seven candidates for the two seats and will be sworn in at Tuesday’s council meeting.

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Although he is the ninth child in a family of 12--his fraternal twin brother, Jim, is seven minutes older--Kelly is the only politician in his clan.

“But he takes care of both of us (in political ambition),” said Jim Kelly. Five of Kelly’s siblings work with him in the family businesses, which include a gift shop, hobby shop, tobacco shop, tuxedo shop and beauty salon filled with reminders of their Irish heritage.

Kelly ran on a conservative platform, supporting reduced spending in city government and opposing what he says is an unfair regulation allowing council members to qualify for public employee pensions after five years of part-time service.

No business in the private sector “can afford something like that,” and continuing such a program wastes taxpayer money, he said.

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However, Kelly’s campaign style was anything but conservative. With the help of friends, he painted in red and blue on an old white Cadillac “Honest John Kelly--Tustin City Council.” He sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to senior citizens during candidate forums. He passed out cigars to everyone during his Tuesday victory party at the family’s beauty salon. And wherever he campaigned, he was generous with his Irish smile.

“It’s important to be a happy candidate, to smile all the time,” Kelly said of his campaigning philosophy.

“He’s a performer,” Thomas Kelly said of his son. “I’m proud of him because he achieved what he set out to do. He’s really honed his political skills (since his first campaign).”

However, Kelly’s father wasn’t always as comfortable with the image of his son as a politician.

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“He was shocked when I told him I was going to run when I was 18,” John Kelly said, “but then he wanted to help me as much as he could.”

Kelly said much of his political inspiration came from Howard Jarvis, who sponsored Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-cutting measure. He said he also admires businessmen such as Carl’s Jr Restaurants-founder Carl Karcher, whom he called the “real American heroes.”

Taking cues from another celebrity, Kelly said the title of “Honest John Kelly” was inspired by Abraham Lincoln, who also lost several election bids before persistence paid off.

As a City Council member, Kelly hopes to help change municipal election dates so that they coincide with state and national elections. He also wants to improve the city’s image with “new blood” so that “unincorporated North Tustin will want to annex into Tustin,” he said.

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And his ambition probably won’t stop with the City Council.

“If the opportunity presents itself (to run for a higher office), I’ll be ready,” Kelly said with his characteristic smile.


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