The City Council chambers could have been mistaken for a flower shop Tuesday as a line of well-wishers—at one point extending nearly the length of the hall—heaped praise and bouquets on retiring councilmembers Maudelle Shirek, Miriam Hawley and Margaret Breland.
While all three women received an equal share of floral arrangements, the loudest and longest ovation followed farewell remarks from Shirek, who marked the end a 20-year run on the council.
“I want you to continue the struggle to make this a better world,” the 93-year-old councilmember implored the packed house.
Shirek, an icon of the civil rights movement, once battled housing discrimination in Berkeley, introduced a recently freed Nelson Mandela to a crowd of over 60,000 at the Oakland Coliseum, and continues to prepare and serve food at a senior center she helped found.
While Hawley and Breland can’t match Shirek’s length of service, all three councilmembers leave a legacy on a council where alliances have grown more fluid and relations more cordial than the one Shirek first joined in 1984.
Don Jelinek, who was elected the same year as Shirek, said she came into her own as a councilmember two years later when the progressives saw their majority reduced from seven votes to one.
Although Shirek hasn’t been as vocal during council debates in recent years, Jelinek recalled one instance in 1987 when Shirek wouldn’t stop talking until she carried the day. With only four votes in favor of a proposal to accept state money to help bring homeless services into the Veteran’s Building, Jelinek said he and Shirek staged a rare filibuster. They prolonged the debate for hours until Councilmember Fred Weeks changed his vote and secured passage of the bill.
“It never would have happened without Maudelle’s moral force,” Jelinek said in a Wednesday interview.
In 1988 Shirek joined a Berkeley delegation on a visit to Palestine, right at the onset of the first Intifada.
“I remember everyone being half asleep and Maudelle leading us down dark alleyways in Gaza telling us not to be afraid,” said Barbara Lubin, executive director of The Middle East Children Alliance.
Shirek’s passion for global justice didn’t always sit well with residents of her council district, several of whom have complained that her office neglected their local concerns. On Tuesday, however, representatives of the LeConte Neighborhood Association, which previously had included several critics, offered Shirek a bouquet.
“We feel so lucky to have had such a treasure right around the corner from us,” said LNA member Pam Speich.
Elected to a stridently divided council in 2000, Councilmember Hawley foreshadowed the blurring of the progressive versus moderate divide that had been the hallmark of Berkeley politics since the 1970s. Hawley, a former PTA president and AC Transit director, remains the only candidate ever endorsed both by the Berkeley Democratic Club, the organization representing political moderates, and the progressive Berkeley Citizens’ Action.
Since voters elected Tom Bates as mayor in 2002, Hawley helped the mayor form a potent centrist coalition on the council, at times angering stalwarts on both sides of the political divide, but pleasing those who sought a more cordial political discourse in the city.
“She has been a calming influence on the City Council,” said Public Arts Commissioner David Snippen. Hawley has also overseen the transformation of her Council District 5 from being aligned with the moderate camp to one which produces deal makers. Her successor Laurie Capitelli, endorsed by the BDC, came several votes shy of also being endorsed by BCA.
Councilmember Spring praised Hawley for taking a softer line on affordable housing and rent control than other councilmembers who represent large portions of the Berkeley hills.
Margaret Breland’s legacy from her eight years on the council can be measured in dollars and cents. “She brought home the bacon,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “South and West Berkeley had been getting screwed for years and she said ‘you guys are going to give us our fair share or I’m not cooperating.’”
“That was just a threat,” Breland said with a smile after Tuesday’s council meeting.
Marty Lynch, executive director of Berkeley-based Lifelong Medical Care, said Breland fought to secure his group an emergency $400,000 allocation to finance the construction of the Over 60 Health Clinic in her district. Lynch said that Breland, a nurse, was also the force behind the South and West Berkeley Health Forums that met and later became the community health action teams after a city report showed wide disparities in health and longevity between minorities in South and West Berkeley and the rest of the city.
Homeless advocate Michael Diehl said that Breland, a devout Christian, proved to be a reliable vote for the rights of Berkeley’s homeless. Recalling a proposal to prohibit the homeless from squatting on city sidewalks, on which Breland cast the deciding vote, Diehl told her Tuesday, “You said you heard from God to vote no and I’m so glad you did.”
During her farewell speech, Breland gave special thanks to Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Linda Maio and Maio’s former aide Calvin Fong for helping her first get elected in 1996. While Breland was often seen as a reliable vote for Maio on key matters, Councilmember Dona Spring said she believed Breland’s frequent support for Maio’s positions stemmed more from her own political convictions rather than any sense of gratitude towards Maio.
Breland, who has battled cancer and heart disease that kept her away from council meetings for several months, gave special thanks to Shirek, who visited her house often to deliver freshly prepared meals. Speaking to Shirek Tuesday, Breland joked that it took her three years but she had finally learned to decipher what the councilmember meant when she, instead of giving a clear answer to a question, often offered her trademark response, “It’s interesting”.
Moments later Shirek addressed the audience and lamented that since she was first elected by a the entire voting public, the city had “fractured” itself politically into homogeneous political districts. “As I say, it’s interesting.”