Pathbreaking Leader of California State Assembly

Wilma Ying Chan, MA ’94

March 2022

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After long days of highly publicized political negotiation, former Alameda County supervisor Wilma Chan liked to sit down with a smaller audience. “I have an 18-month-old,” says Chan’s son, Daren. “We would FaceTime every night, and she would sing to him.” The Beatles and the Carpenters were playlist staples, but one of Chan’s favorites was “Evening Prayer” from the opera Hansel and Gretel.

Photo of Chan standing next to two horsesPhoto: Courtesy Chan Family

In a career dedicated to public service, Chan frequently found herself in the spotlight. “She recognized that was part of the job of being a public figure,” Daren says, “and a necessary ‘cost’ that came with the most important objective of implementing change for underrepresented communities.”

Wilma Ying Chan, MA ’94, died on November 3 after being struck by a vehicle while walking her dog in Alameda, Calif. She was 72.

Chan’s desire to effect change was sparked early. “I always felt marginalized as a young girl and daughter of immigrants,” Chan said in an alumni spotlight for the School of Education’s centennial in 2017. After college, she helped found the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco and worked to save child development centers in Oakland. Fellow activists encouraged her to run for the Oakland School Board in 1990; she won, becoming one of the board’s first two Asian Americans. More firsts would follow: In 1994, Chan became the first Asian American elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and in 2000, she became the first female and first Asian American majority leader of the California State Assembly.

During her time in the state assembly, she authored legislation to establish a no-lead standard for drinking water pipes, to extend affordable health insurance to 800,000 uninsured children and to ban toxic chemicals used in flame retardants. In 2010, Chan reclaimed her seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, where she served until her death. 

David Brown, ’90, Chan’s former chief of staff, remembers how she brokered a seemingly impossible deal between Sutter Health and the Alameda County Health System to save San Leandro Hospital, and then, after she joined the state assembly, how she drafted the Hospital Fair Pricing Act, which prevented hospitals from overcharging uninsured patients, and won approval for $100 million to expand state preschool programs. “When she was in a board meeting and trying to sway her colleagues, she just knew what to say and how to say it,” says Brown, who succeeded Chan as Alameda County supervisor.

In an irony that wasn’t lost on Chan, change had always been part of her identity. “They gave her the Chinese name Huànyīng—meaning ‘change’—because my great-grandfather wanted my mom to be a boy,” Jennifer Chan said at her mother’s memorial service. “My mom often shared that instead of changing who she was, she would change the world. And she did just that.”

Chan is survived by her two children, two grandchildren and two siblings.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford.

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