Councilwoman Linda Maio at a meeting about Ohlone Park in 2015. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Linda Maio, who has served on the Berkeley City Council for a record 25 years, has decided not to run for re-election in November.

Maio, 74, told Berkeleyside she is stepping down because many of the projects she has championed over the years have been completed, or are progressing. The reconfiguration of the Gilman interchange is on track, the sweetened beverage tax is generating millions of dollars a year, and the push to transport volatile crude oil through the East Bay was stopped, among other issues, she said.

“It’s a good time to leave this legacy and move on to the next stage of my life.”

“I can look back at my legacy and see how much I have accomplished,” Maio told Berkeleyside in a long interview recently that touched on her political career, inspirations, and family life. “I’m at a certain age and I kind of feel I’m at the top of my game. I’ve done a lot of important things. And it’s a good time to leave this legacy and move on to the next stage of my life.”

Maio — whose District One seat includes West Berkeley from the Albany border to University Avenue; the Gilman Street area; much of University Avenue; and Ohlone, Cedar-Rose and James Kenney parks — is endorsing Margo Schueler to replace her. Schueler, a construction and maintenance superintendent at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, serves as Maio’s appointee to the Public Works Commission and has worked extensively on environmental issues surrounding Pacific Steel Casting.

An open City Council seat is rare, so undoubtedly numerous candidates will vie for the position in the Nov. 6 election.

A ‘moderating voice’

Many of Maio’s current and former colleagues on the City Council praised her for being a moderating voice on the council, a person who works hard to seek consensus on contentious issues and a font of institutional knowledge.

“She is the lioness of the Berkeley City Council,” said former City Councilman Laurie Capitelli.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Maio, who was vice-mayor for a long time, helped him with the transition from being a councilman to mayor. They have worked closely on issues of land use, affordable housing and homelessness.

“I did implore her to run again,” said Arreguín. “But I certainly respect her decision to retire this year. She will be leaving the council with a lot of accomplishments from her work on affordable housing to her work in creating Ohlone Park, to her work on the soda tax. There are so many things that Linda Maio has helped shepherd over the last 24 [sic] years on the Berkeley City Council. She will be really, really missed.”

City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she has “a tremendous amount of respect” for Maio, dating back 20 years when the two women were not necessarily politically aligned. Maio is always considerate, even with people with whom she disagrees, she said. Wengraf has never seen her lose her temper.

“She is very wise,” said Wengraf. “She knows how to compromise. She knows how to craft compromises. She has a goal and she knows how to get there. It’s very impressive to me. It’s a real skill.”

Alejandro Soto-Vigil, a Rent Board commissioner, ran against Maio in 2014. He claimed that she and other council members lived in a “bubble.” He also faulted her and other council members in 2014 for not paying close enough attention to the fumes being released by the asphalt plant on Second Street. He questioned whether Berkeley was monitoring sufficiently a 1999 settlement in which the company and the city agreed to stricter regulation of the plant’s day-to-day operations.

But District One residents seem to approve of Maio’s performance. In 2014, she was handily re-elected, garnering 55% of the vote. In 2010, she won with 65.58% of the vote.

Early political activity in Berkeley

Maio moved to Berkeley in the 1970s, a single mother with two children. She had grown up in an Italian section of Brooklyn, the daughter of a factory worker who struggled at times to earn enough for the family’s needs. After attending Grove Street College in Oakland, she got her degree from UC Berkeley in 1979. Maio then got a teaching credential and eventually went on to be a research administrator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Before her election, Maio’s focus was on expanding affordable housing in the East Bay. She was the founder of the nonprofit RCD, Resources for Community Development, which built a small housing co-op, converted a drug-ridden hotel on University Avenue into single-occupancy housing and constructed the Women’s and Children’s Shelter on Dwight Way. RCD has now built thousands of units for low-income and very-low income people around the East Bay, including Oxford Plaza next to the David Brower Center. (That happened after Maio’s departure from the company.) “I was mama,” said Maio, who is very proud of the organization.

When Maio moved to Berkeley in the 1970s, the strip of green now known as Ohlone Park was barren land above the BART line. Maio helped convince BART to give the land to Berkeley so it could become a park. That was one of her first involvements in politics in Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The fight to convert vacant BART land into Ohlone Park was Maio’s first taste of Berkeley politics. BART had purchased and razed houses along Hearst Avenue in the 1970s in order to run trains above ground. After Berkeley residents taxed themselves to put the trains underground, BART considered constructing apartment building above. Maio and many others formed a grassroots coalition to push BART to deed the land to Berkeley for a park. Their efforts were successful.

When Nancy Skinner decided not to run for re-election to City Council in 1991, she approached Maio to replace her. The council then was sharply divided between a very liberal bloc called Berkeley Citizens Action, and a less liberal one, the Berkeley Democratic Club. Mayor Loni Hancock, of the BCA, and Shirley Dean of the BDC, were often at odds, Maio recalled. “The tension between Shirley and Loni characterized the sides,” she said.

Maio had gathered more than twice as many votes as her nearest challenger in the November 1992 election but fell 61 votes short of a majority. So she faced a moderate, Gerald Case, a city building inspector, in a run-off election. The San Francisco Chronicle characterized the race as a battle for the political direction of the council. Maio won in a 57-42% victory and has won ever since.

The City Council’s majority leanings have veered from very liberal to moderate since then and Maio has often been a deciding vote. But in recent years she has never been firmly aligned with a particular political bloc. When Tom Bates was mayor and had a solid majority of the council with him, Maio mostly voted with that group but would occasionally vote with the more liberal wing made up of Arreguín, City Councilman Kriss Worthington, and former City Councilman Max Anderson. Maio said she works most closely now with Arreguín, Wengraf and City Councilwoman Lori Droste.

In assessing a career that has spanned 25 years — from the days when Berkeley was a more diverse city with houses that topped out at around $500,000 to today, when the African-American population has dropped to 8%, the median price for homes is above $1 million, and close to 1,000 people without houses sleep on sidewalks, in parks, and on the streets — Maio zeroed in on five of her accomplishments:

  • Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan. While Bates pushed the city to reduce its impact on the environment, Maio said she took a lead in helping to craft a watershed management plan that protected creeks and the watershed.
  • Pacific Steel Casting. Maio pushed the plant on Second Street to install costly scrubbers that captured some of the pollutants emitted by the plant. She also encouraged residents to call her office when they smelled foul odors so her staff could keep an inventory of complaints, as well as calling the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. While it took years, Pacific Steel Casting spent millions to clean up its emissions. Neighborhood complaints dropped significantly and are now infrequent.
  • The Gilman interchange is one of the worst intersections in Berkeley, with numerous streets converging together and no clear way for drivers to know how to proceed. Accidents are common. Maio has long pushed to reconfigure the intersection and the state now plans to build two large roundabouts under Interstate 80. “I won’t be here (at the council) when the first shovel is put in the earth, but I will be there,” said Maio.
  • The sugar-sweetened soda tax. Maio watched as the city of Richmond tried and failed to pass a soda tax. But she learned from their experience and helped forge a large coalition of community groups, health professionals, education experts and more to create a successful grass-roots campaign that convinced Berkeley voters to pass a tax in 2014. Millions of dollars a year flow into the General Fund and the money is allocated to school garden and health programs.
  • The transportation of crude oil through the East Bay. Phillips 66 wanted to build a plant in San Luis Obispo County to refine Bakken crude oil. Maio worked for years to prevent it. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Canada, killing 47 people. Maio traveled to cities throughout the East Bay to point out the potential environmental dangers. Berkeley and other cities passed resolutions against the permitting of the plant and, in 2017, San Luis Obispo County supervisors denied the permit.

While Maio has decided not to seek re-election, she still has nine months on the council, with plenty left to do. Housing and land use remain a priority, she said.

“There are some very big issues facing us now, particularly the challenge of this homeless population – it’s enormous,” she said. “It seems to be worsening every day… What does it say about our society that we can throw people on the street?”

Maio has not said what she will do next. She married Rob Browning, the owner of Talavera Tile and Ceramics on University Avenue, in 2000, and consults with him on the store. Her stepson and his two children, one 7, one 20 months, have returned to Berkeley and Maio is enjoying their company.

Maio sent an email to her supporters and constituents Sunday afternoon announcing her retirement.

“Rest assured, for the next 9 months I will continue to be on duty to push our priorities forward for the health and well-being of our community,” she wrote. “In closing, I cannot adequately express my heartfelt appreciation for your support and trust in me these many years. It has been a tremendous privilege.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...