First woman elected to Benton commission, Kathy Utz, dies at 73

By Annette Cary, Herald Staff WriterMarch 16, 2013 

The first woman elected to the Benton County Commission, Kathy Utz, died Wednesday in Richland.

She was 73.

She served only a single term on the commission, taking office in 1977, but they were productive years.

She worked to get the juvenile justice center built in Kennewick and to start Ben-Franklin Transit, said Mimi Latta, her friend and part of Utz's financial team at Merrill Lynch.

Utz called herself a "Kennedy Democrat" and was active in work for equal rights for women, Latta said. Her attitude, described by Latta as "live and let live," extended to gay rights when she was asked about the issue during a 1994 campaign for the state Legislature.

Her father, one of 13 children, did not attend school after eighth grade and stressed the importance of education, according to a 1978 Herald article about Utz. Utz, who was born in New York City, graduated from high school at 16 and was in the first class to allow women at the prestigious Wharton school of business at the University of Pennsylvania, Latta said. Utz graduated in three years.

She would earn her master's of business administration at the Joint Center for Graduate Study in Richland.

"I was much impressed that education was not an ornament but that I should put it to use," she told the Herald in 1978.

She moved with her husband and three sons to the Tri-Cities from Pittsburgh in 1970. She joined the League of Women Voters and helped start an Equal Rights Amendment coalition. She would continue to be active in the league for decades and also was a member of the National Organization for Women.

She was defeated by a Republican when she ran for re-election to the county commission after she supported a plan to move the county courthouse from Prosser to the Tri-Cities. She continued to believe the move would benefit the county and argued for moving the county seat when the issue came up again in 2010, writing several Herald letters to the editor.

After leaving the commission, she would work as a financial consultant for Merrill Lynch until her retirement and also would teach micro and macro economics at Columbia Basin College.

At Merrill Lynch, she held business seminars and encouraged women to learn as much as possible about finances, Latta said. Utz also encouraged young women to pursue careers in finance.

She re-entered politics in 1993 as one of the interviewers for the Washington Environmental Political Action Committee, which made endorsements in Richland City Council races. The group was active in efforts to preserve Richland's Columbia Point.

In 1994, she was named as the top pick by the Benton County Democratic Party to fill a vacant seat in the state House, but county commissioners chose Tom Moak for the position.

She ran for another state legislative seat that year, but lost to Shirley Hankins. Among their campaign differences was Utz's support for a bill to give gays the status of a protected minority.

"I would have to vote in a way that I think is equitable without historical and social background," Utz said then. "You have to realize there is a life after politics."

"She always was ahead of her time," Latta said.

Utz held leadership positions in her church All Saints' Episcopal Church in Richland. Services will be held there at 1 p.m. March 23.

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