OAKLAND — Amid an endless sea of staff reports, agendas and other county bureaucratic paperwork — all ranging from mildly interesting to deathly dull — sits a 73-year-old county supervisor and her dog.
Well, technically it's her daughter's dog, but Gail Steele has spent nearly a lifetime trying to help take care of people who can't take care of themselves, so baby-sitting an 11-year-old black Labrador every day likely seems like child's play.
"Sometimes, in government, you try so hard and go nowhere," Steele said, before pointing to Maya, the Lab. "You feel like this — a dog chasing its tail."
Soon that chase will be over, at least as an elected official. After more than 26 years in public office — and 10 years of other community service — Steele has decided not to seek re-election for her District 2 Alameda County supervisors' seat.
Steele's successor, among four candidates running in the June election, will be sworn in next January.
"I'm happy that I got a chance to do what I really love doing, follow my passions," Steele said. "I still didn't do everything I wanted to do, but "... I'm so tired now. I think that's God's way of telling me it's probably time to leave."
Steele has a right to feel tired. Through the last 36 years, she's been a councilwoman, a county supervisor and a director of a youth center. In between those things, she lost an election, lost her husband, raised four
"She's a remarkable lady," said former Alameda County Sheriff Charlie Plummer, who met Steele back when he was Hayward's police chief and she was a council member. "She's a wonderful lady — but I'll tell you one thing, if she starts to cry get the hell out of the way."
Steele and crying are as synonymous around the county administration building as budgets and cuts. Her unrivaled passion for many mental health programs and those that help children led to many a tearful board meeting. They've also led to a variety of programs and initiatives in the county to tackle those problems.
Georg Hegel's famous quote — "Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion" — could easily apply to Steele.
"You can't underestimate the strength of her passion," said Dave Kears, the former county health care services director. "You can't question how genuine all those tears are."
Steele began her political career when she and her husband moved to Hayward in the 1960s and she got involved in the League of Women Voters. Eventually a friend told her she should run for Hayward City Council in 1973.
"I thought that was the funniest thing I had ever heard," Steele still laughs. "I didn't even know where City Hall was. But I won by 32 votes and the city of Hayward has never been the same."
She spent the next eight years on council and helped build the Eden Youth and Family Center. However, land use issues and permits weren't her passion, so in 1982, she decided to run for a county supervisor seat.
"That's why I've always loved this job," Steele said. "Here you get to help people that are really in need. Sure, you deal with land use and things like that, but this job is really about helping those in need."
Despite the desire to help, she lost the election. A month later, she lost something more important, when her husband of 23 years, John, died from a sudden heart attack. Steele was left alone to raise her four kids.
"That was the worst year of my life," Steele said.
To move on, Steele went about doing what she liked to do best — helping others, especially children. She became executive director of the Eden Youth and Family Center, and in 1987 won the Hayward Mayor's Award for her community work.
Nevertheless, Steele still felt there was something she had left to do, so she again ran for a seat on the county's board in 1992.
For the first time without her husband — who always picked up her silk-screened election signs from the printers — Steele ran and won a seat on the board.
She immediately immersed herself in efforts that helped children and the mentally ill. She brought together the county's Health Care Services and Social Services agencies to create the OUR KIDS program — a collaborative project to help kids at risk in Oakland and Hayward schools that has greatly expanded over the years.
Steele also created the county's Children's Memorial Wall, which sits outside the county administration building on Oak Street in Oakland. It bears the names of all 361 of the county's children who have died since 1993 as the result of violence — a seemingly immovable monument to lives lost too early.
"I think because of my childhood, children's issues are so important too me," said Steele, referring to her difficult upbringing by her father in rural Guerneville. "I know what happens in your childhood affects you for the rest of your life. You get over it — but you never really get over it."
Nevertheless, after nearly 18 years on the board, it's what she hasn't accomplished that bothers her. She talks emotionally about the need for more mental health services, and about gang-related problems and issues in family court — issues she still hopes to tackle in retirement.
"I'm just a mad, old lady," half-laughs Steele, who describes herself as having half grief and half rage. "Actually, I'm not. When I get up in the morning I'm happy. It's not until I get to work I get angry."
Most, however, don't see her that way. Those who know her talk of a kindhearted woman.
"She cares so much about people, she wants to help so much," said Ilene Weinreb, a former mayor of Hayward. "She's just an advocate for the underdog."
Even her colleagues on the board see a strong leader — not necessarily the grandmother of four that Steele is.
"She's not a bully, but she has no problem taking one on," District 1 Supervisor Scott Haggerty said. "She won't back down."
Haggerty — not shy to shed tears himself — already sadly envisions Steele's last day on the board.
"I'll tell you what, I can't promise you that on her last day I won't cry," Haggerty said.
It's guaranteed Steele will.