peggy kerns with a legislative tour group in south africa

Peggy Kerns’ work in government ethics took her around the world, including to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, above, as part of a parliamentary workshop in 2010. From left are Gershia Coggs; former Wisconsin Senator Spencer Coggs; Kerns; former NCSL Senior Fellow Bruce Feustel; and Maggie Lamborn, formerly with NCSL’s International Programs.

Former Ethics Center Director Peggy Kerns Dies

By Julie Lays | Nov. 25, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

You always knew when Peggy Kerns was in the room. She was the bold one who could ask the uncomfortable questions that were on everyone’s mind. “Peggy had an authentic and formidable presence. She offered sage advice and criticism when warranted. She spoke her truth and made all of us better because of it,” says Caroline Carlson, director of the NCSL Foundation for State Legislatures. “She shaped so many of our lives in a meaningful way.”

“She was a graceful professional—confident, experienced, hardworking and so very driven to do her best,” says Brian Weberg, former director of NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening. “How lucky was I to be able to work with her all those years, to receive her support and wisdom, good humor and stern logic.”

In 1999, Kerns became the first director of the Center for Ethics in Government, housed at NCSL’s headquarters in Denver. There she became a national expert on state ethics laws and norms. For 16 years, she gave presentations, trained lawmakers and wrote frequently for NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine on government ethics before retiring in 2015.

“She was the embodiment of eternal youth: bounding down the hallways, greeting and speaking to everyone, working long hours, coming up with endless ideas for future projects,” says Mark Quiner, the current director of NCSL’s ethics center. “She ‘walked the walk’ and taught me so much about living a life of integrity,” Quiner says.

She was the embodiment of eternal youth: bounding down the hallways, greeting and speaking to everyone, working long hours, coming up with endless ideas for future projects. —Mark Quiner, director of NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government

Before developing the ethics center, President Bill Clinton appointed her to be deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education. Before that, from 1989 to 1997, she served in the Colorado House of Representatives, including two years as the first female minority leader. Her most important legislative work dealt with education, welfare reform and domestic violence, and she was recognized with awards from a variety of businesses, nonprofit organizations and education groups.

“She had an amazing ability to instantly relate to legislators and staff,” Quiner says. “She understood the business of legislating and never missed an opportunity to promote the ‘third branch’ of government.”

Before being elected to the Colorado General Assembly, she served on the Aurora, Colo., City Council for six years, was president of her children’s school PTA, served on the parents’ council of the local school district and was a member of several charity boards. Whatever she got involved in, she made better.

Peggy loved the Colorado Rockies baseball team, and she loved to travel the world. After her husband, Pat, died, her favorite traveling companion became her grandson Jack. She delighted in all her grandchildren, and they adored their “Ma.”

“As fondly as I remember her presence, her strength and her belief in the importance of our ethics work,” says Natalie Wood, director of NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening, “my strongest memories of Peggy are of how her face lit up when she talked about her family—her grandkids, her children, her sister and her husband, Pat—and how she delighted in hearing stories about mine.”

That was Peggy, a person with a soft heart and what Quiner describes as “a spine of steel who backed down from no one.” But she was no match for the rare, aggressive cancer that took her life. Peggy will be missed. We are honored to have known her.

Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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