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Prominent Democratic money-raiser dies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 5, 2010 - Mayor Francis Slay just announced this morning that a prominent local Democratic activist and fundraiser -- Liz Zelenka -- has died.

Zelenka, 51, who had assisted a number of politicians, had been sick for just over a month with what turned out to be bacterial meningitis, a relative said.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a close friend, also Tweeted this morning that Zelenka had died. "We lost Liz this morning. She was a wonderful person, a caring loyal friend. I'm going to miss her so much. Thanks for your prayers," said the senator.

Zelenka was a native of Granite City and graduated from Granite City High School South, her family said. She attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, and graduated with a nursing degree.

But she didn't practice nursing for long. Zelenka got bit by the political bug while volunteering for Democrat Michael Dukakis' unsuccessful bid for president in 1988. By 1990, she was opening her own business in St. Louis as a fundraising consultant.

"She could raise money,'' said city Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby. "She didn't just raise money for candidates. She would raise money for causes.''

Wahby added that Zelenka "always had a smile on her face,'' and was a joy to be around.

Her clients included many of Missouri's top Democrats, including former Gov. Mel Carnahan, but she was known for her discretion in keeping their names -- and their finances -- private. Her work would often be known only by looking at candidates' campaign-finance reports, where she or her firm would be listed.

On his blog, the mayor called Zelenka "a constituent, counselor, and friend. ... I offer my condolences to her family and associates."

"If you did Democratic politics in Missouri or municipal politics in St. Louis, you knew Liz (just one name, like Cher or Oprah!)," the mayor continued. "She was an accomplished fundraiser for Democratic candidates and progressive issues, and a vocal advocate for her neighborhood. She helped my campaigns build winning war chests in 2001 and 2005 – but, even more importantly, she crafted efforts to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a range of civic causes. She was passionate about animals, seniors, broken families, and her city."

"The business of politics attracts all kinds of people: Liz was one of the good ones," the mayor concluded.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.