Dea Riley: Old friend in new places

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Meet Dea Riley, a graduate of SCHS Class of ’86, who wound her way to Utah and back for a run for lieutenant governor.

By Todd Martin

Born in Louisville, raised in Shelby County and matured in Utah, Dea Riley has done a number of things in a number of places.

But despite being a 1986 graduate of Shelby County, Riley isn't very well known around the county.

That could change now that she is running for lieutenant governor, but before that, Riley made a name for herself as an aggressive marketer and woman of impact.

She built several businesses - including Riley Marketing, which she said served more than 50 companies worldwide at its peak - and helped to organize Park City, Utah, as the site for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

She left her mark in Utah, but after the Olympics, she said she felt Kentucky calling her back.

"I had done well in Utah, but I knew I'd never be a Ute," she said. "I'm a Kentuckian, and I wanted to bring my kids [Sara, now 22, Cassidy, 19, Destiny, 12, Matthew 15, Charlotte, 14 and Robert, 4, although Robert and Destiny are not her natural children] home and raise them in Kentucky.

“And I missed Kentucky. I had the only Derby Party in Utah, and I think I taught the state how to make hushpuppies and corn pudding."

So Riley returned home, outgrowing the reasons she left as a young woman - "adventure, a change in lifestyle and in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, ‘Go West young man,’” she said.

And now Riley has changed her outlook somewhat from corporate to more civic minded.

She's led many successful campaigns for elected officials and taken on the timber-theft issue in Eastern Kentucky, but now she's turning the table on herself.

Instead of usual role as a consultant, like she has served on several other campaigns, Riley will have a seat out front this November as the lieutenant governor on Gatewood Galbraith's fifth campaign for the state's top office.

But has had that had any real impact in her native Shelby County?

In the latest campaign finance report last month, the Gatewood/Riley ticket had reported raising just $500 in the county, leaving the impression that her name didn't jump out to the local population as a native daughter.

Shelby County connections

Riley's parents moved the family to Shelby County in 1981, when she was about to start eighth grade, to escape the busing system in Louisville.

"They had four kids in four different schools, and it just didn't make sense," she said.

That move onto KY 322, just north of Chestnut Grove and close to Henry County made a significant impression on her.

"Looking back, that was a tough time to move, but the kids in Shelby County were really gracious, they let me in like I had always been there," she said.

It also taught her what country living really means.

"It helped me understand what it means to live in a rural county," she said. "I got to see first-hand what it was like to chose a farm lifestyle.

"I'll never forget Tractor Day, when all the boys would drive their farm tractors to school. It was a big deal, and to see those huge, expensive pieces of machinery pulling into Shelby County High School was something else. That's what really made me realize that farming is big business."

But although Shelby County helped shape what Riley would become, it was her time in Utah that really formed who she is.

To Utah and back

"I wasn't really sure why I was going, but it gave me a different perspective," she said. "I developed a lot of individualism there and formed a strong bond with nature. I learned that we're all environmental stewards."

Climbing the ranks in marketing at different ski resorts, Riley finally broke free and formed Riley Marketing in 1998.

But Utah had helped foster that outdoor attitude that Riley said started in Shelby County.

"I'm still very connected to the outdoors," she said. "I love to fly fish and still spend as much time outside as I can."

While working in conjunction with several ski resorts on the 2002 Winter Olympics, Riley got a wake-up call on Kentucky.

"It wasn't long after 9-11, and we were talking about whether or not to pull the Olympics, and a conversation came up about Kentucky, and it wasn't flattering," she said. "And I realized that Kentucky's reputation was better in other countries than it was in our own.

"So I started thinking, 'Why can't I market Kentucky, and tell people what Kentucky is really about?’ We need to take control of Kentucky's image."

With a Utah-born love of the mountains, Riley moved back with a focus on Eastern Kentucky.

Appalachian trail

"That's my home now," she said. "I live in Frankfort now, but Letcher County is where I'll go when I'm finished [with work]."

That's why she took on the issue of timber thefts that have rolled through Eastern Kentucky.

And it's a big part of her political platform.

"We have to utilize our natural resources for economic development," she said. "We need to see an expansion of the resort industry in Eastern Kentucky. We need to find the balance between resorts and the environment."

She formed the Appalachian Roundtable – a non-profit that strives to improve the socio-economic situation of the area – and strives for Kentucky to become energy independent.

"We have all the natural resources from coal to wind to hydro and solar power," she said. "Kentucky is full of natural resources that we're not utilizing."

She's a state leader with The Pickens Plan. Formed by T. Boone Pickens, an oil and natural gas magnate, the plan calls for a combination of wind and natural gas to replace one-third of the country's dependence on foreign oil in 10 years.

But as focused is she is on energy independence and economic development, Gatewood Galbraith's campaign seems to be known as a one-trick ticket.

The marijuana ticket

But despite endorsements from groups supporting the legalization of marijuana, including Willie Nelson's Teapot Party, this couldn't be further from the truth, Riley says.

"It's really not as big an issue as people think," she said. "Gatewood has never proposed the legalization of marijuana, but he has proposed the regulation of it."

Riley said there are more than 350,000 marijuana smokers a day in Kentucky, and that it is listed as the fourth-largest producer, but she insists it's not a focus of the candidacy.

"Instead, we need to focus on the abuse of prescription drugs and their pipeline into the state," Riley said.

The marijuana ticket, she said, has been confused with the hemp ticket.

"We are big proponents of hemp because of the huge boom in the economy it could provide for farmers," Riley said. "I do have strategy for introducing hemp to Kentucky, but it's not something we're willing to give away just yet. But it's something we have to take into consideration for Kentucky because of the impact."

And on the legalization of marijuana?

"That's really a legislative issue anyway," Riley said. "The biggest issues to us are the fact that the government is to close in policy with corporations, the struggling economy in Kentucky and the use of our natural resources for energy independence."

Riley said the separation from a party, corporation or individual make their goals a reality.

"I'm as independent as they come, I don't fit in a box," she said. "When people ask what I am, I say I'm a Kentuckian first and foremost."