Ann Chandler, former Alameda County public health lab director and Berkeley City councilwoman, dies at age 71

  • December 3, 2012

By Angela Woodall
Staff Writer, Oakland Tribune

Ann Chandler could be deceptively silent about an issue during her tenure as an AIDS activist, elderly advocate, Berkeley city councilwoman and head of Alameda County's public health lab.

But her friends, foes and political allies knew that behind Chandler's professional, evenhanded demeanor was a woman who helped change policy by standing her ground and who was not afraid of a challenge.

On Nov. 17, the woman passionate about public health died from respiratory problems. She was 71. She was buried Nov. 21 at a family plot in Rhode Island.

A memorial celebration is being organized for January.

"People like her come around only every so often," said her son David Fish, recounting how his mother was arrested for chaining herself to the federal building in San Francisco to protest the lack of HIV/AIDS funding.

She was, however, an unexpected activist.

A native of Bath, Maine, born in 1941, Chandler studied at the University of Rhode Island, then married Richard Fish in 1962. She finished her bachelor's degree in biology at the University of New Hampshire the following year.

In 1969, her husband's work took the family to Berkeley, then a cauldron of political ideologies and movements.

She was nearly 30 years old and the mother of two sons -- David and Michael.

Chandler began her political career in the 1970s by interning in the office of then-Berkeley Councilwoman Loni Hancock. The burning issue at the time was a municipal nursing home.

That led her to Berkeley Citizens Action, a staunchly progressive political committee.

In the 1980s, she divorced her husband and finished a master's of science in public health at Cal State Hayward.

"She definitely made sacrifices for that degree," David Fish said.

But it led to a job in 1981 as director of the Public Health Laboratory of Alameda County, a position she held for 25 years. In 1984, she was elected to the Berkeley City Council, serving until 1992.

During her first year on the council, she worked with then-Mayor Mayor Gus Newport to usher in the nation's first domestic benefits program. Originally, the benefits applied only to city workers, but Chandler later helped expand the program to noncity employees.

Newport called her a political ally and a friend who counseled him when things got tough. He visited her shortly before her death and was there to celebrate her 70th birthday.

"I'm thankful there was an Ann Chandler," Newport said.

Sometimes her stances angered constituents. But, Newport said, "No one, and I mean no one, had a bad word to say about her."

Chandler stayed true to her progressive pedigree while also bridging competing political factions on the council.

"She worked with others across the aisle," said Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who served with her on the council.

Worthington named Chandler as his replacement should anything happen to him.

She collaborated closely with council colleagues Hancock, Nancy Skinner and Don Jelinek, creating a quiet but effective and influential progressive front on the council.

"She was very important in a quiet way," Jelinek said.

She decided against re-election in part out of frustration at the shift from at-large to district elections. She was also diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 50, David Fish said, "but she managed it very well."

After Chandler retired from her Alameda County post in 2006, she assisted the California Department of Public Health as an examiner for the Facility Licensing Division responsible for overseeing standards in long-term care facilities. She also continued to be active in Berkeley politics and community issues, serving on numerous boards.

"She was deliberate and diligent," Skinner said of her former colleague, "but never hard-edged."

Before she died, she requested that any donations in her honor be made to the PD Active Group, a support system for people affected by Parkinson's disease, or the Berkeley Public Library.

In addition to her sons, Chandler is survived by her sisters Elaine Hoffman and Nada Chandler, grandchildren Maalik and Noah Fish and daughter-in-law Ami Fitch.

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