Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who represented the cities of Alameda, San Leandro, and Oakland. Credit: Courtesy of Alameda County

Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who represented Oakland at the local, county, and state level over a 31-year political career, died Wednesday afternoon after she was struck by a vehicle while walking her dog, officials said. 

Chan was known as a tireless public servant dedicated to advocating for children, the environment, affordable housing, and health care for the uninsured. 

She also blazed a trail in local politics, becoming the first Asian American on the Oakland school board and the county Board of Supervisors, before breaking other barriers in Sacramento. Chan was the first woman and Asian American to serve as majority leader in the state Assembly, representing Oakland, Alameda, and Piedmont. 

She was 72 and a resident of Alameda. 

Alameda police said a motorist struck Chan as she was crossing Shoreline Drive, near Grand Street, at approximately 8 a.m. Often filled with pedestrians and bicyclists, Shoreline Drive and the sidewalks and bicycle path along it, run parallel to South Shore Beach.

Chan suffered a head injury and was taken to Highland Hospital in Oakland, where she died around 2:30 p.m., her staff said in a statement. Police are still investigating the cause of the collision, but said the motorist stayed at the crash site and is cooperating with authorities. 

Born in Boston on Oct. 5, 1949 to Chinese immigrant parents, Chan received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Wellesley College and a Master of Arts degree in education policy from Stanford University. 

She became active in politics but never imagined herself running for public office, she said in a video on her website. In the 1980s, she noted, the Oakland school board had existed for about a century without any representation from Asian residents. 

Her victory in 1990 earned her a seat on the Oakland Board of Education and launched her political career. She was first elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 1994, and returned in 2010 to represent the cities of Alameda and San Leandro and portions of East Oakland, Chinatown, and Jack London Square. 

From 2000 to 2006, she represented Oakland, Alameda, and Piedmont in the state Assembly until being termed out. While in Sacramento, she authored bills to end the practice of hospitals overcharging uninsured and underinsured patients and to establish a no-lead standard in drinking water pipes. Her bill to ban toxic-flame retardants put California on the map as the first state to ban the chemicals. 

Her untimely death stunned East Bay politicians and residents. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in a statement called Chan a “champion for inclusion and equity, and a fierce advocate for public health and our most vulnerable residents.” 

District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, a fellow Alameda resident, said Chan was a “north star for so many important issues that served the vulnerable in our community.” 

Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunado Bas wrote on Twitter that losing Chan is “devastating,” and that the supervisor was a mentor for AAPI women. 

Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo, a lifelong resident of the Fruitvale District, said he often turned to Chan for advice or help to provide services to the East Oakland area they both represented. Gallo, who first met Chan when he was on the Oakland school board with her in the 1990s, said she was always “committed to education and young people, specifically those who were in great need.” 

When the coronavirus arrived in Oakland, and began to spread and infect East Oakland residents at disproportionate rates, the county was initially slow to respond, he said. So he phoned Chan. Gallo said the supervisor was instrumental in helping set up COVID-19 testing in Fruitvale, and later ensuring East Oakland residents had access to the vaccine. 

“She’s going to be sadly missed,” Gallo said. “Whenever we needed help, she was my contact.”

Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan
The intersection of Shoreline Drive and Grand Avenue in Alameda is popular with pedestrians and bicyclists. The city has made some traffic safety improvement in recent years. Credit: Amir Aziz

In a statement, The Unity Council and its chief executive officer, Chris Iglesias, said Chan’s contributions to “Alameda County children and families are her legacy.” 

“Supervisor Chan’s consistent commitment to low-income and immigrant families was admirable. Her actions spoke of her dedication to creating a strong safety net for the most vulnerable children and families in Alameda County,” the statement said.

Chan is survived by her two children and two grandchildren. “The family thanks the first responders and medical staff that provided wonderful care to Supervisor Chan,” the supervisor’s staff said in a statement. 

In a biographical video on her website, Chan reflected on her years in public service. 

“Even if you only help one person, it really makes you feel good because you have a purpose in your work,” she said. “But I’ve been very fortunate to be able to help, I’d say, tens of thousands of people in all my work. It’s not just me, it was the opportunities I was given.” 

A memorial at the crash site continued to grow Thursday as people dropped off flower bouquets. The intersection of Shoreline Drive and Grand Street, along the southern edge of Alameda island, has been the site of numerous collisions over the past decade. 

Between 2009 and 2020, there were 46 vehicle crashes there, including at least four where pedestrians were hit and injured, according to UC Berkeley SafeTREC’s Transportation Injury Mapping System. A 70-year-old man was hit and injured in 2014 and in 2011 a 72-year-old man was also hit by a vehicle.

Alameda Councilmember John Knox White told The Oaklandside he felt “extreme sadness and anger” that Chan died on the city’s streets.

The Alameda City Council has worked with transit leaders in recent years, he said, to improve the design of major city roadways, including narrowing the width of Shoreline Drive by adding a two-way bike track in 2015. Narrowing a roadway—a process called a “road diet”—tends to reduce the number of collisions by making drivers slow down. The current speed limit on Shoreline Drive is 25 mph. Road diets also make pedestrian crossing lengths shorter, giving drivers fewer opportunities to hit people.

“It was like a freeway on the beach. People were doing 40 and 50 miles an hour,” said Knox White about Shoreline Drive prior to the road diet. “Before and after surveys showed that traffic slowed down.” 

The Alameda Police Department has not disclosed whether speed was an issue in the collision that killed Chan.

Some East Bay elected officials took to social media over the past 24 hours to recognize Chan’s contributions to the region, and to call for greater safety improvements to roadways in Alameda and beyond to prevent further loss of life.

On Twitter, Berkeley Councilmember Rigel Robinson said he was grateful for Chan’s service to the East Bay and devastated by her “tragic and preventable passing.”

“Traffic violence took one of our strongest leaders today,” Robinson wrote. “May her memory drive us to fight ever harder for a healthier, safer future.”

BART Director Rebecca Saltzman called Chan an incredible leader for children and families, and wrote “It’s unacceptable that our streets are too dangerous to take a dog out for a walk. We must make our streets safer for everyone.

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.