Kelly Ernby, former O.C. GOP state Assembly candidate and deputy D.A., dies of COVID-19

Kelly Ernby in an undated file photo
Kelly Ernby served as an elected O.C. GOP Central Committee member at the time of her death.
(File Photo)

Kelly Ernby, a political newcomer who ran for an Orange County state Assembly seat two years ago as a Republican, died this week of COVID-19. In addition to political activism, she also worked for 10 years as an O.C. deputy district attorney.

Ernby, a Huntington Beach resident, was 46.

“The Orange County district attorney’s office is utterly heartbroken by the sudden and unexpected passing of Deputy District Atty. Kelly Ernby,” said D.A. Todd Spitzer in a statement. “Kelly was an incredibly vibrant and passionate attorney who cared deeply about the work that we do as prosecutors — and deeply about the community we all fight so hard to protect.”

Spitzer praised Ernby’s enthusiasm as part of his agency’s Environmental Protection Team and called it an “absolute privilege” to fight alongside her.

News of Ernby’s passing surfaced on Monday morning when local Republican politicians and party activists began publicly paying tribute to her life.

“She was very passionate about her love for politics, for America and the Republican Party,” said Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the Calif. Republican Party and a longtime O.C. GOP activist. “She jumped into a race for state Assembly when not many people knew her, ended up raising more money and having a much larger grassroots organization then expected.”

In 2020, Ernby declared her candidacy for state Assembly in the 74th district and described herself as a political outsider. The district was anchored by Irvine but encompassed several coastal cities, Huntington Beach most prominently among them. In the primary election, she challenged Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon, a fellow Republican, for the chance to unseat Cottie Petrie-Norris, the freshman Democratic incumbent.

Ernby earned the endorsement of former Newport Beach City Councilman Scott Peotter, Dixon’s one-time colleague on the dais. She also enjoyed the support of Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, former Assemblyman Jim Silva and Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ernby took a firm stance against existing vaccine mandates on the campaign trail when appearing on Mark Newgent Live for an online town hall.

“I don’t think that the government should be involved in mandating what vaccines people are taking,” she said. “I think that’s a decision between doctors and their patients. We have evidence that there are side effects and things that happen — not all vaccines are the same. Ultimately, we need to be very careful. If the government is going to mandate vaccines, what else are they going to mandate?”

Dixon edged Ernby for second place by 4,000 votes before narrowly losing to Petrie-Norris in the general election.

“A lot of people take their marbles and go home but after losing her state Assembly race, Kelly got involved with the county Republican Party, instead,” said Fleischman. “She took on the very important job of being precinct chairman, which meant she was finding captains, as they call them, in all of the different cities around Orange County in getting geared up for the next election cycle.”

Ernby became an elected O.C. GOP central committee member in 2020. She was halfway through the four-year term at the time of her passing.

The party released a statement on her passing.

“It is with great sadness to share that our Precinct Operations Chair, Kelly Ernby, has passed unexpectedly after brief illness,” it read. “Kelly was an incredible patriot and leader in our party. She spent her career fighting to give people a voice.”

According to Fleischman, Ernby was readying another state Assembly run in the newly drawn 72nd district when the two traded text messages last week. Ernby also confided that that she fell ill with COVID-19, but Fleischman didn’t expect her to die from the disease at the time, calling her passing “sudden,” especially as the two planned to talk this week.

“I found her to be funny and generous,” he said. “She quickly became part of the fabric of our party. We’re really going to miss her. It’s very sad.”

During the pandemic, Ernby remained an ardent and vocal opponent of COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

As recently as Dec. 4, she spoke against them during a rally held outside Irvine City Hall. Organized by the UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton chapters of Turning Point USA, the rally drew dozens in attendance, according to the Daily Titan, a CSUF student newspaper.

“There’s nothing that matters more than our freedoms right now,” Ernby said.

The daughter of Navy veteran parents, Ernby grew up in San Diego. She earned a law degree from the University of San Diego School of Law and was recruited to join the Irvine offices of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher law firm. Ernby took a significant pay cut in 2011 to work for the Orange County district attorney’s office until the time of her death.

Ernby is survived by her husband, Axel Mattias Ernby.

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