Patti Dacey, 1949-2013: An Appreciation of the Life of One of Berkeley's Best and Brightest

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 14, 2013 - 07:45:00 AM

With Patti Dacey’s death last Friday Berkeley’s civic circus lost one of its brightest stars. Most recently, Patti’s keen intellect and sparkling wit enhanced the meetings of the Planning Commission, of which she was a member, but in her too short life she added color and style to a wide range of pursuits both public and private. 

She never expected to grow old. In the last decade or so she fought type 2 diabetes, which she thought would kill her before old age, but not quite this soon. She was just 64 when she died from complications of lung cancer in Nice, France. She was there on a long-planned grand cruise with her extended family, which had turned into a kind of Last Hurrah after her cancer treatment ended, appropriate for a consummately political person of Boston Irish stock.  

People in Berkeley in recent years knew Patti as a public figure, but she was equally devoted to her family of origin and the many who became like family for her over the years. She was an army brat, one of five siblings raised on bases around the country in places as diverse as Nebraska, Puerto Rico and Massachusetts. Their late father was a high-ranking general in the Strategic Air Command—and Patti proudly wore his service jacket to anti-war demonstrations after she inherited it. Three of her brothers and sisters became lawyers and doctors around the country, and they all keep in touch and gather often. Another sister, diagnosed with schizophrenia in her teens, now lives in a group home in Nebraska, where Patti made sure to visit her for a week at a time every three months or so. 

Her pride and joy was her daughter Kirsten and twin granddaughters who now live in Oregon. Kirsten came as a surprise when Patti was an undergraduate at Wellesley. Patti had to drop out of school, and the marriage to her baby’s father didn’t last long. As she told the story in recent years she and baby enjoyed the counter-culture for a while, including a stint on a rural commune, but eventually she decided to finish her education in Berkeley as an English major at Cal, followed by law school at Boalt. 

Meanwhile, she became a leader in the Berkeley tenants’ right movement, participating in a historic rent strike accompanied by a lawsuit which resulted in the tenants being awarded title to two multi-unit houses. There they formed the collective where she lived until she died.  

Her fellow collective members became an extension of her family, particularly her apartment-mate of two decades, Janet. This familial relationship added a new dimension to single-parenting strategies when Kirsten’s father Walter, visiting his daughter, met and admired Janet, eventually married her and moved in with Patti, Janet and Kirsten, providing the lucky child with three resident parents as she was growing up and the twins with three doting grandparents in their early years. 

And in the spare time she had left from getting a law degree, making a living and raising a child, Patti enjoyed raising a little hell. As a newly-minted Southside collective homeowner, she became active in the LeConte neighborhood association, leading neighbors dealing with the mundane unpleasantries like drunken brawls and noisy vans which afflict neighborhoods near the U.C. campus.  

She was a proud and unapologetic N.I.M.B.Y, but, like the original Love Canal pollution fighters who coined the title, she interpreted the much-misunderstood slogan not just as Not In My Back Yard, but also Not In Your Backyard Either. She thought that there were some indignities that no one should have to suffer, no matter where they lived. 

I first met her when I was on the Landmarks Preservation Commission and she volunteered to write a landmark designation application for a beloved building on Telegraph which was threatened with demolition by developers. She replaced me temporarily on the LPC when a well-wired applicant group with deep pockets successfully challenged the presence of three Berkeley Architectural Heritage members on the commission, the only time that particular trick has worked that I can remember. I imagine the applicants eventually regretted knocking me off, because Patti quickly mastered the facts of the case and did a brilliant job of adjudication (better than I would have done, since I sometimes lose my temper when confronted by chicanery, and she didn’t.) 

That experience seemed to whet her appetite for volunteering to serve Berkeley in the important arena of land use law, really the only area where cities still have any residual power to affect the lives of citizens after Proposition 13. Her legal training made a big difference on citizen commissions, where non-professional volunteer members are often tempted to believe anything they’re told and staff gravitates to representing insider interests.  

Patti was fond of quoting a maxim she remembered from the first day of her administrative law class: that any regulatory agency is eventually captured by those it’s supposed to be regulating, simply because all the usual parties get to be buddies. When local land use is the topic, developers and staff quickly get on a first name basis, in Berkeley and everywhere, she realized, and the ordinary citizens suffer. 

But what was remarkable about the Public Patti is that she not only contributed spot-on legal analysis to such discussions, she managed to add humor and warm feelings to the discourse. I’ll wager that even those Planning Commission members with whom she fervently disagreed will miss her on Wednesday nights, because she managed to make public controversy fun, almost as if it were a game of tennis among friends.  

The people who’ll really miss her, though, are the ones who depended on her to hold the fort when their neighborhoods, homes or livelihoods were threatened by wealthy property owners. The most recent assault on the well-being of Berkeley residents, artists and small businesses was the brazen attempt by the council majority to rezone West Berkeley for the benefit of big corporate interests, which reared its ugly head as Measure T in the last election. Patti and her allies called their bluff, at the planning commission and in public meetings. The electorate caught on and voted Measure T down, so the public interest won that round. 

But there’s always much more to do. Corporate power continues to threaten little guys in West Berkeley and South Berkeley and everywhere else, and we continue to need people like Patti who are willing to speak out when this happens. Well, there aren’t many more people exactly like Patti, who was able to speak truth to power in her gravelly voice with style, wit and panache, but we can do our best. 

Not that we should count on winning all battles, of course. My favorite memory of political action with Patti Dacey was after George W. Bush won stole the 2000 election.  

Boy, were we mad. We thought we just had to protest, so we got tickets on Southwest and a room in a cheap motel in Maryland, jumped on a plane and ended up carrying a great big sign in freezing drizzle on the fringes of the Bush inauguration along with a couple of her friends from Alaska who were wearing HazMat suits. 

(I think they were protesting a pipeline, or maybe oil spills. I forget what our sign said.)  

Quixotic? Of course.  

Did we Dump W? Of course not.  

Was it worth it? Of course it was.  

If none of us can speak up when bad stuff happens, eventually no one will speak up about anything. And then where will we be?  

This is the classic spot to quote the telegram Joe Hill was supposed to have sent to Bill Haywood right before he was executed: 

"Goodbye, Bill, I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!" 

Well, we should be allowed a bit of time to mourn Patti Dacey, a true blue rebel ‘til the end. No Berkeley memorial for her has yet been scheduled, so someone should start organizing one soon. And then someone should pick up where Patti left off, organizing everything else that needs doing that she didn’t get around to before she departed. 

The next meeting of the Berkeley Planning Commission is on Wednesday, at the North Berkeley Senior Center at 7 p.m. You might be the person who should be there to keep an eye on what they’re up to, right? If not you, who? Patti would want you to be there. Organize!