What Berkeley Can Learn From Maudelle Shirek

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 19, 2013 - 10:09:00 AM

After all the trouble President Obama got into for calling Kamala Harris the nation’s most attractive attorney general (I haven’t seen all the competitors, but he might be right) I hesitate to say this, but Councilmember Maudelle Shirek was a beautiful woman, easily the most beautiful councilmember I’ve seen in all my years of going to city council meeting. 

Maudelle had the kind of beauty that exists regardless of age, sex or gender. She was well past 70 when I first met her: a commanding erect figure with a crown of white hair, always exquisitely dressed, with piercing brown eyes that didn’t miss anything. And when she cared about something (she cared a lot about some things) she was a beautiful speaker too. Polished phases, sentences, whole paragraphs rolled off her tongue as if she was reading from a scripted teleprompter, but it all came out of her head and her heart. 

Congressional Representative Barbara Lee and former Vice-Mayor Carole Kennerly have contributed their memories of working with her to this space, so I won’t reiterate what they said. They knew her better than I ever did, but the experience I had working with her in her eightieth decade was inspiring in its own way. 

Maudelle believed in people, but she also believed in seeing the big picture. I was her appointee to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and she strongly supported the idea of preserving Berkeley’s history for future generations. But although she had a strong aesthetic sense (evident in her elegant personal style) she cared about more than just pretty buildings. My predecessor as her LPC appointee was the late Bob Sparks, one of the first generation of People’s Park activists, who championed the legacy of public space for community use, and through him she supported the designation of the park as a city-recognized historic resource, an official landmark. 

Maudelle Shirek was 92 when she retired, the oldest elected public official in California. In her last years, even supporters sometimes suggested that she should step down. 

The current lackluster Berkeley City Council, several of whose members have lingered on the dais long past their pull dates, presents a strong argument for term limits. Most of them have been on the council for way too long, and in some cases they also had been aides to councilmembers before being elected in their own right. For most of her long tenure on the council, Maudelle was a counter-argument, a steadfast spokesperson for the less privileged members of our community whose principles never wavered, with a unique perspective. 

Right until her last day on council, she was capable of springing into action to deliver an impassioned speech on an important topic. But even Maudelle perhaps stayed a bit too long. In her last couple of years on council she dozed from time to time during the most tedious parts of Berkeley’s interminable council meetings—which any of us at any age might be tempted to do, of course. 

Maybe we need term limits to save people from themselves. Maudelle Shirek was determined to hang in there as long as she could—she never agreed not to run again. Her eventual departure was engineered by a benign collusion of aides and friends which resulted in “mistakes” in the papers required to file for election, with Max Anderson actively waiting in the wings to take her seat. Her respected contemporary, Councilmember Betty Olds, abdicated after a similarly long tenure in favor of her long-time aide Susan Wengraf. 

In all the time I’ve been watching local politics, nine times out of ten succession has been insured by this kind of quasi-papal process which is almost impossible for a newbie to crack. And incumbents, whether they pay any attention to what their constituents want or not, are almost always re-elected. 

This method of choosing representatives has sometimes been described as a machine (incurring the wrath of some old-time liberals who hope it's not so) and the judgment is not inaccurate. Berkeley might be better served by term limits accompanied by an open process for choosing new elected officials, which could bring fresh ideas to our civic decision-making. Both Anderson and Wengraf are better than average councilmembers, but new blood is still needed.