Kathleen “Doc” Kelley hopes to heal Harrisonburg

Photo from Kathleen Kelley campaign Facebook page.

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

When Kathleen Kelley is seeing patients, she prefers – if at all possible – to get at the root cause of a problem instead of relying on medication.

“It’s not getting to the cause of the problem. It’s controlling the disease, but it’s not solving the issue,” Kelley said.

As a physician who practices alternative and integrative medicine, she traces that mindset back to her medical residency in the late 1980s. At the time, she perceived a shift in medicine from focusing on nutrition and lifestyle to greater reliance on medication – something that disturbed her.

“Instead of seeing people get better, I was just seeing people get sicker, and I didn’t like that trend,” she said. 

This focus on root causes is something Kelley wants to extend to everyone in Harrisonburg as she runs for city council, one of five candidates vying for three seats up for election on Nov. 3. 

The sole Republican in the race – and the first candidate the local party has fielded in six years – Kelley is running against Democratic incumbent Mayor Deanna Reed, Independent incumbent George Hirschmann, and Democratic newcomers Charles Hendricks and Laura Dent

Kelley told The Citizen she hopes to encourage hope and a greater sense of community in Harrisonburg. She plans to accomplish this by supporting existing businesses, attracting more employers to the city, addressing homelessness, and making the city “crisis-proof” as it moves through and past the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s all part of a campaign that she didn’t begin considering until the metaphoric last minute. 

The first Republican candidate in six years. 

The Harrisonburg Republican Committee has not backed a new candidate for six years, and the city’s last Republican council member, Ted Byrd, retired two years ago after serving for 12 years. According to Jefferey Mayfield, the city GOP chairman, recruiting candidates has been a challenge in a city that increasingly votes blue

“A lot of Republicans around here feel like they can’t win, and they just wonder: ‘what’s the point?’” Mayfield said. 

While Hirschmann, a self-described conservative independent, was elected without the backing of a party, Mayfield was looking for candidates who would commit to the Republican label.

“It’s a matter of principle and integrity – don’t lie to the voters,” he said. 

As he was vetting potential candidates to run for city council, Mayfield was contacted by a friend of Kelley’s who suggested he reach out to her. At the time, neither knew each other, and Kelley was not even aware that Harrisonburg had a local Republican committee.  

In an interview last summer, Kelley recalled being taken aback by Mayfield’s proposal that she run, channeling Star Trek character Dr. McCoy. 

“I’m a Doctor, Jim Not a Bricklayer!” she said.

Stepping into the void

While Kelley’s busy schedule running her practice and caring for her elderly mother in Rochester, N.Y., kept her from much recent involvement in local politics, she was surprised to hear that Mayfield didn’t have many other options. 

“I was like: ‘gee nobody’s doing it? There are all these people that have these concerns but no one is willing to speak up?’” Kelley said

Kelley and Mayfield first spoke only one week prior to the nomination deadline, and Kelley filed her papers in the nick of time. Despite her being a political newcomer, Mayfield believes she is more than qualified for the position, and brings an air of positivity to the currently hostile political climate – her campaign’s upbeat Facebook page being one example.

“[Kelley] is very easy-going, very calm and collected, throughout the whole campaign she has never been negative, and always looks for a positive outcome,” he said.

In September, after being publicly criticised – and harassed online, she said – for posting QAnon memes on Facebook, Kelley removed her personal page from public view.

“I don’t want innocent people getting dragged into nasty, nasty politics,” she told The Citizen in September.

She also said that QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory labeled by the FBI as a terrorist threat, is about peace and unity in the world.

Kelley (center) at a stream cleanup with members KAYA. Photo from Kathleen Kelley’s campaign Facebook page.

Shoe-leather politics

Kelley has run a self-described low-budget, grassroots campaign, during which she has canvassed on foot through different neighborhoods in Harrisonburg. She has also volunteered with events organized by various groups around the city, such as two different creek-cleanups in Harrisonburg this summer by the Kurdish American Youth Association (KAYA). 

According to treasurer Zeki Salehi, Kelley showed up with several friends to help with the first cleanup, and then again at Blacks Run a few weeks later. At the first cleanup, Salehi said Kelley asked lots of questions about organization, as well as the Kurdish community in Harrisonburg. 

“[Kelley]’s very curious, she wanted to know more about us and what our concerns and needs were as a community,” Salehi said. 

Although Kelley spends most time focusing on her practice and has worked as a doctor since moving to Harrisonburg in 1997, she has also had other business ventures in the city. She was one of the original owners of You Made It! pottery studio, which she operated for the first three months when it opened in 2003 before selling her half of the business. 

She also owned a gym in Harrisonburg called No Sweat! Fitness from 2004 to 2007, which she opened as an extension of her medical philosophy.

“I was tired of seeing people sick, so I opened a gym,” Kelley said. 

Engineer to doctor to candidate

Becoming a doctor had been Kelley’s goal since she was 11, when growing up in a working-class family set her mind on having a lucrative career.

“I just didn’t want to be poor. I don’t wanna be hungry, I don’t want to starve,” she said.

That was secondary to her fascination with identifying problems and solving them – a desire she pursued at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.

“You basically solve puzzles all day. It’s fun, it’s like a game,” she said. 

Still, the urge for medical school remained, which Kelley saved up for by working as a chemical and environmental engineer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester. She returned to University at Buffalo in 1983, earning an M.D. from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in 1987.

Kelley has spent her medical career working as a physician for various providers, including Kaiser Permanente and Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal. She began working as a physician with Sentara RMH in 1999. 

She has also provided healthcare at different Urgent Care centers around the state, giving her flexibility to drive back to New York to care for her parents. While spending long stretches on the road has been a constant in her professional and personal life, Kelley said she would adjust that schedule accordingly if elected to council. For the time being, though, she’s taking the process one step at a time. 

“The first step is getting elected, then getting connected with people who know how we can manage everything without spending an arm and a leg and raising taxes on people,” Kelley said. 

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