The annual Celsi Celebration is an important opportunity for supporters of the Multnomah County Democrats to come together in support of the activism and grassroots engagements that Dick Celsi held so dear. He would have loved the money raised and would have spent it wisely organizing.
“Celsi” as his friends called him, never held an elected office other than Chair of the Multnomah County Democratic Party during the 1970s and Chair of the State Democratic Party during the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Dick Celsi was an avowed Democratic Socialist and vocal member of both the Democratic Party and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. He was a strong voice for the poor, homeless, and those without means. His quiet, but forceful opinions could be heard in every corner of the state.
Dick Celsi lived with his wife, Jean, in Northeast Portland, in a rambunctious house full of actors, musicians, and volunteers. He created the walking cards and binder rings used by PCP’s to do the door-to-door work for primary and general elections. He also developed the first walking programs with the help of then-State Representative Gretchen Kafoury. Celsi led by example and never expected PCPs to do more than he did himself, but ran a tight ship–he insisted that PCPs walk their precincts and stood up to those who rested on their laurels. He was an innovative organizer, with a knack for getting people involved at every level, even when door-to-door was not an option. His efforts recruited an army of phonebankers and envelope stuffers that made a real difference in Democratic Party organizing over his tenure as Chair. Celsi knew how to bring out the best in people, identifying what they were good at and convincing them to volunteer these skills for the good of the party.
As chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, Dick Celsi ran a tight ship. He rented a house in Salem not far from the state Capitol, so that he could be close to those elected officials who would be most likely to stray from the party platform. With proximity on his side, he worked tirelessly to hold these Democrats accountable. He had no patience for Good Ol’ Boys’ Clubs, either. Troubled by the “Capitol Club” lobbyist clique and even more offended by the Club’s infamous “Hello Party”, which gave its lobbyists long hours of access to Oregon lawmakers (as long as they could afford the expensive ticket price), he decided to attack cronyism with humor. In the late 1980s, he teamed up with the Public Interest Group–a coalition of labor activists, champions of the poor, and Democratic stalwarts–to host an event for the same legislators invited to the Hello Party, dubbed the “Pig Party.” Celsi’s idea attracted strong support, and he always managed to convince some good-hearted farmer to donate a pig and volunteers to roast it. Thanks to his relationship building skills, after the gift of the pig and Teamsters’ donations of food and beer, the Pig Party, held on the Capitol grounds in Salem, cost a whopping $5.00 for guests. Volunteers ate for free, and while everyone was admitted, legislators were expected to pay their share.
Celsi was Chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, which made him a Super Delegate to the DNC and temporary Chair of the Oregon Delegation at the 1984 San Francisco Democratic National Convention. While Walter Mondale eventually won the nomination, Celsi was a strong and vocal supporter of newcomer Jesse Jackson, who went on to become a strong voice for social justice, inside and outside of Democratic Party politics.
Dick Celsi was an activist’s party Chair, loyal to principles and dedicated to grassroots campaign work. We gather here today to celebrate his memory and his dedication to progressive values by coming together to support Democratic efforts to advance justice in Oregon and beyond.
Thank you to Mary Botkin for writing this biography of Mr. Dick Celsi.