In Memoriam Deanna Spehn

In Memoriam Deanna Spehn

November 20, 1947 – November 12, 2022

On November 12, 2022, Team Toni lost a beloved colleague, longtime district policy advisor and San Diego legend, Deanna Spehn.

Deanna had a state legislative career that spanned two decades, having worked with Senator Atkins for more than 10 years in both the Senate and Assembly, and for Christine Kehoe beginning in 2002 and throughout Kehoe’s tenure in the Legislature. Deanna was a well-respected and knowledgeable advisor – prior to her time in state service, she worked for and advised policymakers at the City of San Diego for nearly a decade. She is survived by her husband and partner in all things, Richard, daughter Michaela and son-in-law, and two granddaughters.


“Deanna was truly one of the most brilliant women I have ever worked alongside, and had a commitment to public service that was unparalleled. I could ask her a question about anything from an obscure transportation issue to climate change policy, and Deanna would not only know the answer, but the backstory that informed the answer and a solution for how to make it better for California,” Pro Tem Atkins said in a statement. “She was kind and honest, and tirelessly committed to her career. I adored Deanna, as did our team, and we are all devastated by her passing – we didn’t just lose a colleague, we lost a member of our family. My sincere condolences go to her husband Richard, her daughter Michaela, son-in-law, and grandchildren, and all those who loved her. Deanna was a wise, guiding light for us all.”

“Deanna was a brilliant and engaged citizen. Deanna came up through the ranks of community organizer and neighborhood publisher to master the technicalities of local and state water policy and statewide fire safety regulations. As a key aide to elected officials for decades, Deanna brought practical thinking to complicated and controversial issues; she was an outstanding listener and respectfully grasped multiple aspects of challenging debates,” said former state Senator Kehoe. “Her understanding of environmental policy and programing can be seen in open space protections, conservation plans and major infrastructure projects across our region. Deanna's progressive thinking embraced equality for all and a true love of the arts. Deanna and her loving spouse, Richard, supported a wide range of arts and culture organizations throughout San Diego. Deanna thought deeply about what builds strong, vibrant communities and she participated fully in the civic life of our city.  Her dedication to San Diego and California was surpassed only by her love and devotion to Richard and her family. I was honored to work with her for decades. San Diego has lost a citizen of integrity, insight and intellect.”


Deanna was a dedicated member of the community. She helped establish the San Diego River Conservancy, and was a tireless advocate at the city and state government level. Earlier in her career, she spent four years working for San Diego City Councilmember Judy McCarty, where Deanna was responsible for budget and environmental issues. She also served for several years as assistant to the mayor and the City Council’s Rules Committee Consultant, controlling the docket for City Council meetings. During her time working for former Mayor Susan Golding, Deanna was instrumental in the city’s efforts to develop its Multiple Species Conservation Program.

In recognition of her steadfast work and commitment, December 7, 2021 was declared “Deanna Spehn Day” by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. She was similarly honored by the San Diego City Council with “Deanna Spehn Day” on September 25, 2018. Deanna was also involved with several environmental organizations and the environmental community will also be mourning her passing.

While Deanna devoted countless hours to her job in the Legislature, she also served as editor and co-publisher of the Tierra Times, a free community newspaper that reported on Tierrasanta community events and issues. Deanna began writing stories for the Tierrasanta Bulletin when she moved to the area 50 years ago, and started the Tierra Times in 1977 alongside three of her neighbors. It was a labor of love that was a family affair – Deanna worked on the publication on nights and weekends, and husband Richard handled the photo editing. In September, the Tierra Times, which brought attention to critical issues facing the community, published its final issue. She also was heavily involved in her community of Tierrasanta beyond publishing the newspaper, including serving on the community planning board, among other volunteer activities.

Deanna created a lasting impact on our community and our state. City and county leaders, public officials, and community groups have shared the following thoughts and stories about Deanna:


“I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone – in any line of work – who loved what they did more than Deanna Spehn. She truly loved the San Diego Community and she dedicated her life to making it a better place. Like so many, our entire team at EDC will miss her guidance, counsel, wisdom, and constant presence in our work. And more than anything, for me personally I will miss her kindness and friendship.”


Mark Cafferty, President & CEO, San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation


“On behalf of the Governing Board Members from the San Diego River Conservancy we will miss you, Deanna Spehn!

Where does one start? I guess it goes back to 2002 when then California State Senator Chris Kehoe of San Diego decided that a state conservancy should be established for the San Diego River. The staff person who worked for Senator Kehoe at that time and who made it happen was Deanna Spehn, a longtime San Diegan.

Deanna a conservationist and knowledgeable staffer in the State Capitol, understood what needed to be done and made it happen! She was the staff architect along with Senator Kehoe`s political leadership that developed the San Diego River Conservancy. Without Deanna`s leadership, insight and knowledge of State Government, the River Conservancy would not exist today.

In the year 2020, now working for Senator Toni Atkins of San Diego, the Pro Tempore of the California State Senate, Deanna still had hand her hand on the tiller of the San Diego River Conservancy.  It was her knowledge and support of the San Diego River and the San Diego regional and local governments that made the San Diego River Conservancy a key player in enhancing, protecting and providing the necessary tools for the betterment of the San Diego River for all San Diegans.

The question is how would one describe Deanna`s role in this River? She was a quiet and kind leader, with a keen sense of the art of political leadership along with the knowledge of how to protect San Diego River’s resources. She also understood the need to educate our young people in how to conserve while telling stories about the land and the native peoples.

She was instrumental in advocating for public access to the river for educational and recreational purposes without negatively impacting the plants, animals and the heritage of Native Americans who lived along the San Diego River.

Her extensive knowledge and quiet leadership will be greatly missed but not for gotten. A tribute to Deanna is that the river is now in a better place and will be even better because of her.  Deanna Spehn will be forever remembered as a great friend of the San Diego River Conservancy.”


Ben G. Clay, Chair, San Diego River Conservancy


“Deanna Spehn lived a life full of purpose and progress and will be terribly missed.  She was a passionate member of the Tierrasanta community and played a pivotal role in making California a better place for all people. Deanna’s legacy will live on through the relationships she forged, stories she wrote and the transformational policies she helped Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins craft for our community. Lorena and I are saddened by Deanna’s passing and our hearts go out to her family, friends, colleagues, and Senate pro Tempore Atkins.”  


Nathan Fletcher, Chair, San Diego County Board of Supervisors


“Most San Diegans will never know the impact that Deanna Spehn had on their lives, but they experience it every day. Through her decades-long career in local and state government, she shaped public policy around the most complicated and weighty issues – from water, transportation, environmental protection and more. She did this all the while serving as a leader in her own right in her community of Tierrasanta.  The City of San Diego and the State of California are better because of Deanna’s service. All of us owe her a debt of gratitude. My heart is with Deanna’s husband, Richard, and all her family, friends and colleagues."


Todd Gloria, Mayor, City of San Diego


 “Deanna never took her eyes off the true purpose of public service. She helped to craft and carry transformative pieces of legislation to protect not only some of California’s most prized possessions — our climate, air, open space, oceans, and coasts — but also its people — our workers, LGBTQ communities, and other underrepresented individuals. Exceptional policy expert, climate leader, and a true public servant – Deanna is already sorely missed, but her impact continues to be felt today and will be for generations to come. Thank you, Deanna Spehn, for all you’ve done for our communities. Rest in peace.”


Terra Lawson-Remer, San Diego County Supervisor, District 3


“Deanna was a dear friend and colleague to the Chamber and business community. We relied on her knowledge and expertise for countless issues. She was a trailblazer for women in politics and respected by so many of us. Her lifelong dedication to making San Diego a better place benefits all of us. She will be missed greatly.”


Jerry Sanders, President & CEO, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce