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Lucy Killea, political trailblazer who was denied Communion for supporting abortion rights, dies at 94

Lucy Killea, political trailblazer who was denied Communion for supporting abortion rights, dies at 94
As a state senator, Lucy Killea addresses a member of the financial industry during a public hearing on the California debt in Santa Ana. (Garcia, Alexander / Los Angeles Times)

Lucy Killea, the former San Diego City Council member and state legislator whose independent streak put her famously at odds with the Catholic Church and her own political party, has died.

From her work at the CIA and on Eleanor Roosevelt's staff at the first United Nations General Assembly in 1946 to her early support of San Diego's trolley and downtown redevelopment, she forged her own path in a political world largely dominated by men.

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"She was always ladylike, gracious and tough as nails," said former Assemblywoman and state Sen. Dede Alpert.

Killea had been at the Elizabeth Hospice and died Tuesday, years after she was diagnosed with cancer. She was 94.

Killea served on the city council for five  years and spent 14 years in the state Assembly and Senate, retiring from public service in 1996. She continued working with civic organizations and was known for her decades-long push to improve cross-border relations with Mexico.

Her most famous stand came in 1989 when she faced off with Leo T. Maher, then the bishop of the San Diego Roman Catholic Diocese. Maher banned Killea from receiving Communion because of her support for abortion rights, which had become a prominent feature during her state Senate campaign in a special election.

Lucy Killea and friend Susan Harding after a breakfast meeting where they discussed Killea's effort to promote open primary elections.
Lucy Killea and friend Susan Harding after a breakfast meeting where they discussed Killea's effort to promote open primary elections. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The bishop's edict became national news and Killea, who appeared on "The Phil Donahue Show," made it clear she would not alter her position on abortion nor leave her faith. With her reputation growing, she won the election in a Senate district where half of the voters were Republicans and just 36.7 were Democrats, like Killea

She was not a woman who would capitulate, whether to a bishop or another legislator. But high-volume confrontation was not her style.

For years Killea worked to foster better communication across the California-Mexico border. She helped to found Fronteras de las Californias and the International Community Foundation, both of which sought to help people south of the border through grants and charitable giving.

Despite Killea's skill in office, she tried to keep a low profile, Berger said.

Killea was an early supporter of San Diego's trolley system and believed the city's downtown would be a major success if redeveloped.

"She was convinced that it could be done, and that we had a useful tool in the redevelopment law, and that we should reclaim what was obviously some of the most valuable real estate in North America," said former Gov. Pete Wilson, who'd also served as San Diego's mayor.

Born Lucy Gold Lytle on July 31, 1922, in San Antonio, Texas, Killea was the daughter of a ballerina who toured with Anna Pavlova in Europe and died of tuberculosis when Killea was 8. Her father, a judge, was killed a year later when he was shot in a hunting accident. Aunts and a family friend helped raise Killea, her older sister and her two brothers.

Killea joined the CIA in 1948, preparing reports on post-war construction in Europe. She left the agency in 1956 when she had her first son and when her husband was named the consul general in Monterrey, Mexico, by President Dwight Eisenhower. John Killea later served in Tijuana.

She fell in love with the culture and ultimately earned a doctorate in Latin American history from UC San Diego. She spoke nearly fluent Spanish and sang with a number of groups while in Mexico.

Killea moved to San Diego in 1968 and was appointed to the council in 1978 after her predecessor was jailed for customs violations.  Wilson, a conservative Republican, was mayor at the time and backed the Democrat for the council.

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It was while she was in the state Senate that she was barred from receiving Communion because of her support for abortion rights. Killea respected the decree within the diocese, but still attended Mass at Immaculate Conception church in Old Town San Diego, and received communion at churches in other dioceses.

"She just had that wonderful way where she was so nice about everything, and a classy person, but never would let anyone think she wasn't strong and wouldn't follow through," said Alpert, who considered Killea a mentor.

Killea won reelection in 1992 after announcing that she was dropping her long membership in the Democratic Party to become an independent.

"I was disgusted with both parties," she would say later. While officially a member of neither of the major parties, she largely continued to vote with Democrats.

Of all the things she lent her drive to, advocating for women was paramount. Killea was one of a handful of women in office in Sacramento when she was first elected, and she deftly navigated the Legislature. And when other women entered office, Killea showed them how to be effective lawmakers in a world dominated by men.

"I think I learned how to be both strong and gracious at the same time, how to get things done, but you don't have to be unpleasant, and yell and scream,"  Alpert said of the lessons learned from Killea. "You don't have to behave the way a man does."

Killea's former chief of staff and longtime friend Susan Taylor said her old boss regularly took female staff members and interns with her to meetings and community groups to show them how things worked.

"She cared deeply about helping women move up the ladder politically, socially and economically," Taylor said.

"She avoided the spotlight as opposed to what we see so much of now," she said.

"As far as she was concerned, she was a good Catholic," Alpert said. "She remained a person of faith and maybe figured out how to do it so that it would work for her."

As a high-profile politician denied Communion because of her stance on abortion, Killea is still invoked by name whenever there is talk of another Catholic public official being refused the sacrament.

She later worshiped at an Episcopal church.

She is survived by her sons Jay and Paul.

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