Tireless progressive has secured voters' devotion
Councilwoman doesn't let disability take her prisoner

Carolyn Jones SF Chronicle December 29, 2006

When Dona Spring speaks at Berkeley City Council meetings, her raspy voice
booms from the loudspeakers with the fervor of an evangelical minister.

"We need a warm water pool for our disabled and senior population, and we
need it now! This has gone on long enough!" the 53-year-old council member
cried at a recent meeting, drawing a standing ovation.

But Spring isn't there to appreciate the applause. She's at home, several
blocks away, reclined in a wheelchair and following the council proceedings
with a phone and television.

As her rheumatoid arthritis worsens, Spring is rarely able to attend council
meetings. It a challenge for the five-term council member to even leave her

But as her health declines, her popularity only grows. She won her last
election with 72 percent of the vote against a candidate with heavy backing
from merchants groups. Her battles for the elderly, the disabled, the
low-income and at-risk youth clearly resonate with her downtown district,
which re-elects her regularly by landslide margins.

"Running against her was absurd," said Robert Migdal, a former rent board
commissioner who ran against Spring in 2002 and garnered 21 percent of the
vote. "It was like running against Mother Teresa. She's a tenants' rights
icon, a peace icon, a disability rights icon. I knew it was hopeless."

Even as the city's political landscape shifts to the center, Spring has
remained a strong voice on the left.

"I see her as a creative visionary for the progressive agenda," said
Councilman Kriss Worthington, a longtime ally. "Most of the unfinished
business we talk about today, like biodiesel conversion and public financing
of elections, she was proposing 5 or 10 years ago."

She's also known for her tenacity, fighting relentlessly for a favorite
cause at the risk of alienating even her most stalwart allies. For example,
she brings up the city's need to fix the warm-water pool -- used by the
disabled and elderly for physical rehabilitation -- at nearly every council
meeting. The city is negotiating with the school district to replace the

"She's very persistent," Worthington said. "But she doesn't blow up and
curse at people abusively as some in Berkeley do. She's very patient and

Many consider her the hardest-working council member, a notable
accomplishment because she needs assistance with dressing, eating and other
basic tasks. Unable to use her hands, she uses special equipment to operate
her computer and telephone.

Spring, an outspoken liberal, spent her formative years in red states. She
was born in Plentywood, Mont., near the Canadian border, to a long line of
wheat farmers, before moving to Grand Lake, Colo., at age 6. Among her most
vivid childhood memories is a deer-hunting expedition with her father.

"When the deer was shot, it didn't die right away," she recalled earlier
this month. "Watching that deer die was a very significant moment in my
life. It was like I disconnected from my body. I said, 'I'm not going to
feel this.' It took such a long time for that deer to die."

It was that experience that led her to feel deep empathy for the suffering
of others, especially those who are relatively defenseless, she said.

She attributes her left-wing politics to her grandmother, a Communist
surrounded by conservatives.

"She was so outspoken, even in this Podunk town," Spring said. "She was a
role model. There was no one politically active like that, especially a
woman, and no one speaking out against the Vietnam War. I really admired

Spring's family moved to Los Angeles in 1968, and Spring enrolled at UC
Berkeley shortly afterward. Berkeley, to her, was nirvana.

"Berkeley in those days was one of those cauldrons that brought East and
West together," she said. "I found it very exciting, a very heady

In 1972, around the time she earned her bachelor's degree with honors in
psychology, she noticed a swelling in her right knee. When her left knee
also began to swell, she went to the doctor.

The diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes
chronic joint inflammation and pain.

"My reaction was, OK, this is what I have, what's the cure? They said there's
no cure," she said. "I heard the sound of prison doors clanking down for a
life of imprisonment. The only thing worse would be if it was terminal."

In the late '70s, she had to stop working because the pain and difficulty
walking became too debilitating. She moved in with her mother in Oakland and
slowly adjusted to life with a disability -- getting a wheelchair, finding a
place to live, getting a job.

A turning point for her was working at Berkeley's Center for Independent
Living, one of the country's foremost disabled services agencies. She saw
disabled people living productive lives and recognized the power of public

Over the years she became involved in land-use, waterfront and rent-control
issues in Berkeley, and in 1992 she decided to run for City Council against
John Brauer, a close ally of then-Rep. Ron Dellums.

"I was in a wheelchair, and so I had people help me knock on doors," she
said. "Maybe voters gave me extra points for making the extra effort."

She won by a slight margin, and has been a shoo-in ever since.

In her new term, Spring plans to continue fighting for housing for
low-income residents, a new animal shelter, and, of course, a warm-water

"I'm very proud of the advocacy I've done, being able to do things that
change the direction of people's lives," she said. "I work really hard, and
I've been very lucky because I guess people like what I'm doing."

Solid victories
Dona Spring's vote percentages:

1994 -- 65 percent
1996 -- uncontested
1998 -- 85 percent
2002 -- 66 percent
2006 -- 72 percent

E-mail Carolyn Jones at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.