Margaret Breland, one of Berkeley’s toughest political fighters, has succumbed to her long struggle with cancer. She died in her sleep at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley Thursday morning. She was 69.
Breland, who represented West Berkeley on the City Council from 1996 through 2004, had a reputation for fighting tooth and nail for programs to serve her district and for putting her faith first on a council that often resorted to partisan bickering.
Breland batted breast cancer throughout her second term in office. For several months in 2003 and 2004 she called into council meetings from her home while recovering from surgery. Breland looked strong as she finished up her term last year, but her health quickly declined this year, her daughter Mary Breland said.
Breland had been hospitalized at Alta Bates for the past three weeks due to complications from cancer, her daughter said.
“Margaret was a strong, courageous woman,” said her pastor Rev. Marvis Peoples of the Liberty Hill Missionary Baptist Church. “She came from humble beginnings, the odds were against her, but she overcame all of that, and she was always a giving person.”
Born in Beaumont, Tex. in 1935, Breland came to Berkeley as a young girl. The oldest of four children, to divorced parents, Breland was counted on to help her mother run the household. “She always had a lot of responsibility,” said her daughter.
Breland graduated from Berkeley High School and worked 27 years as a licensed vocational nurse. She took early retirement in the late 1980s to care for her mother, who suffered from multiple strokes.
Her first forays into public life came through her church work. As chairperson of Liberty Hill’s scholarship committee, Breland, who didn’t attend college, raised thousands of dollars every year to guarantee that every church member attending university received at least $1,000, according to Peoples.
Breland also chaired the congregation’s Christian Social Concern Committee that kept the church informed on community issues. In one of her first forays on the city stage, she led a successful drive to install a traffic light at Ninth Street and University Avenue, where she said children going to and from Liberty Hill Church, located near the intersection, faced unsafe crossing conditions.
Breland also chaired the city’s Human Welfare Action Committee and the West Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation. Her friend Willie Philips remembers first meeting Breland when he accidentally walked in on a development corporation meeting, thinking it was the Peace and Justice Commission. “She signed me up for the commission on the spot,” Philips said. “You couldn’t tell her no.”
After losing her first bid to for the City Council in 1994, she won office two years later, in an election that gave the more progressive side of the council a majority that they have not relinquished since.
“Her election signified that the city had moved left,” said Mel Martynn, her former legislative aide. “It was really important to have a progressive force in West Berkeley and that is what she represented.”
In her first term, Breland set out to garner funding for her district, which she believed the city had long neglected. She helped secure $500,000 for the West Campus Pool, $450,000 for facade improvements for San Pablo Avenue shops and $400,000 for the Over 60 Health Clinic in her district.
“She got more money for her district in her first term than any councilmember I’ve seen,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
“She was a woman committed to her responsibility as a public servant,” said Chuck Robinson, who lived in Breland’s district. “Whenever we brought a need to her attention she always followed up.”
Even while Breland was ailing, Martynn said she demanded daily briefings and made efforts to go to City Hall and give a voice to the concerns of her constituents.
“She loved being a councilmember,” Mary Breland said. “She loved doing things for other people and making people’s lives a lot better.”
Her faith was at the heart of her commitment to public service, Martynn said. “She took from it a Christian sense of helping people and caring for people,” he said.
Rev. Peoples said, “She would seek faith to guide her in decisions and rely on her faith to guide her to do things she knew wouldn’t be popular.”
Although Breland was a consistent progressive vote on the council, on some matters of fate she diverged from the Berkeley mainstream. Last year Breland was the only councilmember not to endorse a resolution supporting same sex marriage.
Like her mother, Breland was divorced and raised her children on her own. “She always told us we could do whatever we wanted to and to always stand up for whatever we believed was right,” Mary Breland said.
Breland is survived by three children, Mary, Rosetta and Alphonzo, three siblings, Robert Lee Parker Jr., Alvin Lee Parker and Yvette Ladd, nine grandchildren, Alphonzo Breland Jr., Nickalas Breland, Brandy McMurry, Frederick Hives II, Danielle Breland, Jonathan Breland, Franklin Crim, Reshenda Coleman-Smith and Renisha Coleman-Smith, three great grandchildren, Areyana Hay, Ke’Shawn Smith and Ke’Oni Smith and two sisters-in-law Classie Parker and Mary Parker. Her daughter Willa Mae Hives died in 1997 of a blood clot near her heart. No memorial services have yet been planned.