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At 91, oldest elected official in California tells how she made a difference in 1966

By Kurtis Alexander, Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday July 10, 2002

One late night on Virginia Street in 1966 may have been one of the most influential moments of Maudelle Shirek’s life. 

In a house full of young, nationally-minded activists debating how America could move out of a controversial war and away from 1950s social values, the fledgling politician convinced UC Berkeley graduate student Ron Dellums to run for U.S. Congress. 

Dellums proved successful in his congressional bid. After that, he spent 24 years in Washington, where he introduced a leftist agenda to the national legislature. He was a huge inspiration for black politicians, said Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. 

“Had it not been for Maudelle, we wouldn’t have had Dellums in Congress,” he said. 

Now 91, Shirek is in her fifth, four-year term as a Berkeley councilmember and is the oldest elected official in California. The granddaughter of an American slave, Shriek represents District 3, a working class district in south Berkeley, and is known as an advocate of the poor and the underrepresented. 

Having created a local legacy of her own, Shirek downplays her impact on state and federal politics. 

“Dellums says I convinced him to run for Congress, but I’m not so sure,” she said. “I do know he took the torch and ran with it.” 

Shirek is often referred to as the “mother of progressive politics” in the offices of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. 

Tuesday morning, friends and followers of Shirek gathered in Oakland to recognize the councilmember’s political career. Proclamations came from the County Board of Supervisors, Assemblywoman Dion Aaroner, Congresswoman Lee and President George Bush. 

“I’ll be anxious to see what Maudelle does with President Bush’s proclamation,” joked Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, referubg to Shirek’s well-known aversion to the Bush administration. 

Dean, herself representing a more moderate element of Berkeley, has encountered the fierce and sometimes fiery activism of her colleague. 

Shirek has put the welfare of organized labor, the homeless and AIDS’ victims at the forefront of her political agenda, sometimes isolating the issues of fellow councilmembers. 

With two years remaining in her council term, Shirek hasn’t thought much about re-election. 

“I don’t know how many more years I have. I could go at anytime,” she said. “I’m just continuing to work for the homeless and the hopeless.” 

Shirek spends much of her free time volunteering at local senior centers, having retired from a credit union where she had worked as a loan officer. Her husband was the late Brownlee Shirek, also a political activist. 

Longtime friends of the councilmember know Shirek not only as a progressive political figure, but as a friend and neighbor. 

“If you need something, you call Maudelle. That’s the way it is,” said Berkeley teacher Jesse W. Anthony, who has known Shirek for 34 years. “Whether it’s a place to stay or something to eat, she’ll help.”