'Chick in charge:' Kelly Rossman-McKinney remembered for opening doors to women in politics
Lansing-based public relations executive Kelly Rossman-McKinney died last week at 67.
Friends and colleagues say she left a lasting legacy by opening doors for women in Michigan politics.
Rossman-McKinney was a single mom when she started a communications company in the late 1980s. Her friend Liz Boyd says the move took guts.
“She did things that quite frankly, I probably never would have done," Boyd said. "Go out on your own at a young age with a young son and start your own business working at a kitchen table and writing press releases on Saturday night at 11 o'clock.”
Rossman-McKinney, a Democrat, merged her company with Republican John Truscott’s in 2011 to create the powerhouse lobbying firm Truscott Rossman. Her tips for women in business have been circulating on Facebook since her death from cancer.
Andrea Bitely, a Truscott Rossman director, summarizes some of that advice: “Remember that the B-word is an acronym for ‘Boys, I’m taking charge here.'"
Bitely led communications for Republican Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette before Rossman-McKinney became communications director to Democratic AG Dana Nessel.
Nessel was elected in 2018 alongside a female governor and female secretary of state. After taking the job with Nessel, Rossman-McKinney teased Bitely about forgetting to clear one thing from her old office.
“What I left behind was a box of tampons," Bitely remembered. "And Kelly never let me forget that. Every time she saw me, she would bring it up. Like, ‘Oh, you know, now that there's three women running the state, gotta have that box of tampons.”’
Rossman-McKinney kept that sense of humor when she lost her hair to chemotherapy and chose a Halloween costume, lobbyist Nancy McKeague recalled.
“Her decision was that she and her husband, Dave, would dress up for the AG’s party as Mr. and Mrs. Clean, since they were both totally bald," McKeague said.
When McKeague suffered a brain hemorrhage several years ago, she relied on Rossman-McKinney’s support.
“She did not let the intensive care staff tell her she couldn't come into my room," McKeague said. "She didn't take 'no' for an answer. She would sneak in. The only thing I felt like eating at all once I was conscious again were milkshakes and she would smuggle them in.”
Former journalist Angela Vasquez-Giroux remembers covering an event hosted by Rossman-McKinney's firm and running into a problem with Rossman-McKinney’s client.
'One of the men was overtly creepy to me, like touching and gross, and this was someone I’ve never met before," Vasquez-Giroux said. "I was so shocked that when I got back to my desk I, of course because this was like 2011, posted about it on Facebook.”
Vasquex-Giroux, now a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, worried she would get in trouble for complaining publicly. But Rossman-McKinney assured her she’d ended the man’s contract.
“What I got from, you know, a lot of folks including some of the other men who were at that press conference and who I did know well and had known a while was like, ‘Oh, he does this to everyone — he doesn't really mean it.’" Vasquez-Giroux said. "And what I got from Kelly was, ‘He's been doing this for too long, and it needs to stop.’”
Democratic state Rep. Sarah Anthony ran for Lansing school board at 22. That’s when she met Rossman-McKinney, who was among the people giving endorsements from the regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Now, these business folks didn’t know me from a can of paint," Anthony said. "But later I heard that Kelly went to bat for a young African-American woman who was trying to get her foot in the door in politics."
Rossman-McKinney ran unsuccessfully for Michigan Senate in 2018. Before that, she tangled with then Republican state Sen. Rick Jones. He called her a “hooker” who would work for anyone.
“The normal response to that would have been, you know, very outraged, very, you know, very proper," Vasquez-Giroux said.
Later, Rossman-McKinney emceed an event and joked about being in the same room with her ex-husband and Jones.
"Kelly's response was just off the cuff and pretty hilarious, and I think did more to neutralize Rick and put him in his place," Vasquez-Giroux said.
Boyd, who once led communications for Michigan’s first female governor Jennifer Granholm, says one phrase comes to mind.
“When we talk about chicks in charge, I think of Kelly Rossman," she said.