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Mayor Dean says goodbye

By Matthew Artz Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday November 20, 2002

For a woman who stands at less than five feet tall, Mayor Shirley Dean has been a towering presence in Berkeley politics for more than a quarter-century. 

Now, two weeks after losing her bid for a third term, Dean spoke candidly about her election defeat and said she has no plans of leaving Berkeley politics. 

“I don’t believe in retirement, never have,” she said Tuesday, refusing to rule out another bid for elected office.  

But with the weight of City Hall now off her shoulders, Dean is making a list of activities to keep her busy outside the mayor’s office. Foremost among her plans is to write a tell-all book about her life in city politics. 

“It will be a human story,” she said, leaving the details for potential publishers. 

While Dean charts her next move, many residents won’t soon forget her near lifetime of contributions to the city. 

“She’s a hard-working, smart person, not the bragging type,” said Sal Murillo, a retired Berkeley school administrator who oversees an annual award program that recognizes the contributions of Berkeley High School students. He recalled five years ago when several local businesses refused to sponsor the education awards, he asked Dean to step in. “She worked so hard to convince [businesses] to sponsor the program,” he said. “Without Shirley there’s no way we would have the recognition awards.” 

Murillo said Dean’s greatest impact as mayor was just making the effort to show residents she cared. 

“Many Latinos here didn’t feel a part of the city,” he said. They saw Peoples’ Park advocates raise hell and get council’s attention, but felt like they were ignored, he explained. 

“Shirley began to go to their homes and churches and helped them get involved in the political process,” he said. “She even invited the youth into her office to show them that a Berkeley student could one day be mayor.” 

Dean is an authentic Berkeley figure. She moved to the city from Minneapolis when she was in eighth grade after her father died, wanting to be closer to his parents who owned a gas station in town. 

She never left, graduating from Berkeley High School and UC Berkeley with a degree in social welfare. She worked most of her professional life as a social worker for Kaiser Permanente and later served in the Office of Undergraduate Admission and Relations with Schools at UC Berkeley. 

She entered politics as a neighborhood activist in the 1960s, trying to stop developers from tearing down historic homes. Later, she joined the group Urban Care which fought a planned shopping mall on Berkeley’s waterfront. 

In 1971 Dean was appointed to the Planning Commission and in 1975 she won a seat on the City Council. 

Elected mayor in 1994, Shirley compensated for the “weak” mayor position – a largely symbolic post that carries no more power than other council members – by working relentlessly on programs she thought were best for the city. 

Her top agenda item, which some name as her greatest achievement, was the creation of an Addison Street arts district and the revitalization of the downtown. 

Working with financiers, artists, landlords and politicians, Dean drummed up support for her plans and found the money to bring several theaters and cultural groups to the downtown. 

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that all of the good things that have happened downtown have happened because of Shirley,” said Susan Medak, managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 

“For years the downtown was treated as a stepchild. Nobody took ownership for it,” said Medak who thought about moving her theater to Oakland because the downtown had such a tawdry reputation. “Shirley’s focus was to make Berkeley a more civil place. She realized the link between a vibrant cultural life and a vibrant civic life.” 

While Dean worked tirelessly to instill civility in the downtown, her success did not translate to the City Council, where partisan bickering continued to infest proceedings. 

As mayor Dean was a lightening rod for attacks by some members of her progressive opposition, and she often let her anger and frustration show. 

Dean blames the bitterness and factional infighting played out on televised council meetings for her defeat two weeks ago to former state Assemblyman Tom Bates. 

“[Voters] were embarrassed by what was going on in council. They blamed me,” she said. 

Dean said that in retrospect she could have done a better job at staying above the fray, but as a natural fighter she often could not hide her feelings in the face of numerous personal jibes. 

“Shirley for a politician is thin-skinned,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “There were many things said about Shirley that hurt her badly, and she tried not to show the hurt.” 

Dean said she is hopeful that the next council can work more positively together, but is concerned that the progressives, who have a majority on the panel, might stifle debate. 

“When council tips too far to one side it’s easy to ignore opposing views,” she said. 

Martha Jones, Dean’s friend and the former head of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association, doesn’t want to think of a City Council without Dean. 

“She’s so smart. She always had her finger on the pulse of the city and she was willing to take on very difficult issues,” Jones said. 

Jones remembered that as a council member in 1979 Dean took the lead on fighting a UC Berkeley plan to close a school for the blind and deaf on university property. 

“Shirley helped rally the city and fought the university for two years,” Jones said.  

Dean lost that battle. The California School for the Deaf and Blind is now Clark Kerr Campus, apartment-style housing for undergraduates.  

But as was the case for more than two decades, Dean’s faith in the city and its people will undoubtedly keep her active in public life. 

“You have to be optimistic,” she said. “Overall, Berkeley is a pretty damn good place.” 


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