Longtime Emeryville Councilmember Nora Davis sadly passed away this week. She was 92 years old.
Davis was an absolute force in Emeryville politics during her 27 years on council presiding over its “Boomtown” era. An era that saw our city transform itself from a gritty and polluted swath stripped by the exodus of its manufacturing sector to the mixed-use and retail destination it is today.
Davis is remembered as a tough, engaged and hard-working councilmember who loved and took immense pride in her tiny city. She always put its growth and maturity at the forefront of her priorities.
Originally from the East Coast
Davis grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion and achieved her undergraduate at Duke University in North Carolina. She moved to California with her first husband shortly after they graduated. Her husband tragically died in an accident while leading a Sierra Club expedition leaving her a widowed mother of three.
“I can fully appreciate a lot of the people that I know in town that are single mothers that have real problems in terms of educating their children,” she noted during this interviewed with her in 2015 during her final term on council. “So, I’m very sensitive to those issues.”
Davis eventually remarried and she became aware of Emeryville through their shared passion of sailing. “It was an industrial town that was almost crumbling into ruin. You saw big swaths of nothing. At that time it had a very colorful reputation.”
Davis and her husband moved to Watergate in 1979 after her youngest son moved out to attend college (Watergate did not allow children at the time). She completed her Masters in public administration and settled into a career as a corporate recruiter.
Pulled into Politics over Environmental Concerns
Davis was pulled into politics through her involvement with a pro-environmental group and the plans for the “hyper-growth” of the Emeryville shoreline area that was owned by Santa Fe Railway.
She ran for and won her first council term in 1987 as part of the “All Emeryville Alliance” slate along with attorney & Artist Co-op resident Greg Harper and nightclub owner Ken Bukowski (both Harper and Bukowski still reside in Emeryville). The trio staved off an attempted political resurgence by notorious former police chief John LaCoste.
Despite this stance against growth, she would clearly embrace it over time and oversaw a period that saw our population swell from around 3,000 people to over 10,000 by the time she left council.
Despite Davis’ savviness in the political arena, she never had political aspirations outside of Emeryville. “People don’t understand how complex this one mile city is. So, my focus has been entirely on Emeryville,” she further noted in our interview with her.
She made no apologies for Emeryville’s “pro-business” reputation or its vast amount of retail. “Rebuilding the economic base with this city was critically important. And that’s again, people in the city and businesses coming together making it happen. It wasn’t one person or 4-5 people. It was a lot of people.”
Davis also cautioned Emeryville’s current political dynamic of taking Emeryville’s tax-base for granted and the loss of revenue to support programs. “If you drive business away you’re going to have to pick up a pretty hefty tab and you’ll never be able to do it.”
Davis was also a champion of Public Safety and quality of life issues. Without a current champion of these causes, it’s no coincidence that these have regressed in her absence. Davis touted her focus on the “basics” of city administration which she noted to include Budget, Police, Fire and Public Works.
She was also a huge supporter of the preservation of Emeryville’s fascinating history and a longtime backer of The Emeryville Historical Society.
Davis listed the creation of the East Shore State Park, Emeryville’s Greenway, The Emery Go-Round and the ongoing toxic cleanup of our town among her proudest accomplishments while on Council. A more thorough list can be read on her archived Smart Voter biography.
Davis seemed aware of Emeryville flaws, and expressed optimism that the next generation of leaders would help continue her and others’ efforts including the completion of the South Bayfront bridge (finally in progress) and continuation of the Greenway which is slowly inching along.
Davis’ words were a bit foreboding to the challenges our city may soon have to reckon with including the prospects of an eroding tax base amid business closures and a disruption in the commercial real estate market. She expressed concern about Emeryville’s current political climate at a time when our city will not even have an election due to lack of candidates. “I’ll tell you in terms of elections, you get what you vote for. So, you better understand who’s running, what they stand for, does it jive with what you want? If you don’t participate, you’re not going to be in the game.”
Davis had her share of critics over the year and some saw her as too “pro-growth” and entrenched with Emeryville’s business community. Despite many attempts by Emeryville’s “progressive” factions to unseat her, Davis went out on her own terms finishing off her final term in 2016.
Davis not only set the standard for Emeryville leaders, she set the standard for all leaders at the city government level. Pragmatic, visionary and collaborative. Whatever successes the city currently enjoys can be linked to decisions made during her time on Council. Emeryville’s well-regarded police force, its base of affordable housing, its diverse tax base. These things didn’t happen by accident and Davis and her fellow councilmembers of this era gets the lion’s share of credit.
The E’ville Eye reached out to several Emeryville stakeholders and asked them to provide their thoughts on her impact on our city and them personally.
Rich Robbins – CEO & Founder of Wareham Development
Nora was a one of a kind. She spearheaded so many things that made Emeryville a better City, a better community. She was fiercely independent; merit of each issue based; and you knew she cared only about the impact on her City, whether you were in agreement or disagreement with her decision; and I’ve been on both sides. No one was more respectful to hear both sides of an issue. When one looks back at her contributions to the citizens of Emeryville and the region, it is iconic, and was always based on collaboration and singlemindedness, creating private public partnerships that contributed lasting impacts for generations to come. I will miss her laugh, and her ability to laugh at the absurd. I will miss her dedication, that she gave so generously; of her time she gave so unselfishly. I will miss her inimitable wisdom.
Charles Bryant – City of Emeryville Planning & Building Director
Nora was instrumental in the transformation of Emeryville in the late 20th and early 21st centuries from a declining industrial town to a vibrant mixed-use city.
However, the influx of new residents also brought with it increased complaints about typical urban issues, including noise and traffic. One of my favorite quotes from Nora is “Mixed use is a mixed blessing.”
Ken Bukowski – Served alongside Davis on Council for 24 years
In 1987 I asked Nora to run for city council. When I first met Nora, she was very outspoken on the issues at Watergate where she lived. We ran for council together along with Greg Harper and together we helped change the direction of the city.
Nora was a no-nonsense business woman with an urge to get things done. She was a master of talking to people on the phone. I would say she gave 150% of her time to the job. She was on top of everything in a way I’ve never seen before. In 24 years of serving on the council together, there is not one person I ever met in city business that had not already spoken to Nora.
We worked well together, but as time went on, had our disagreements. When we didn’t agree, she would never let you know it, however, she would be working in the background to accomplish the goals she believed in, whether right or wrong.
I can say, no one knew Nora as I did. She gave her heart and soul to Emeryville. She was a brilliant woman and is someone I can never forget.
Don Hausler – Emeryville Historical Society Co-Founder
Nora Davis supported EHS going back to when we established in 1988. A lot of times when we opened an exhibit in the Oakland History Room, she would show up to check it out.
Also if she liked a newsletter, she would mail me a note expressing her approval. Here is one of her notes dated August 16, 2004: “Another tour de-force of the card rooms. I thoroughly enjoy the new series. Thank you. –Nora Davis.”
She understood what we were trying to preserve Emeryville History. She has always been on the EHS mailing list.
Jennifer Tejada – Former Emeryville Police Chief (2015-2020)
Nora was an amazing person, inspiring, and a role model- authentic and professional in all of her work and interactions, and unlike many other politicians, her opinions were informed by wisdom and not ego.
John Gooding – Consultant and Friend for over 35 years
Having been a political junkie most of my life, I have known a good many elected officials. Nora Davis was unique. She was motivated by what she felt was best for Emeryville, always. Her sole ambition was whatever was important to Emeryville. Nora truly cared about all residents. Her death leaves a huge void.
Krisna Hanks – Former Emeryville Small Business Owner & EDAC Member
I had the wonderful pleasure to get know and work with Nora Davis during my thirteen years living and working in Emeryville. She was a real treasure to the city, she was passionate, hard-working and completely devoted to improving the lives of citizens and businesses in Emeryville.
As a small business owner (previous co-owner/founder of East Bay Pilates) and resident of the area Nora did her utmost to make both sides (business and resident) feel their voices were heard and moreover to see what real action could be implemented. She always remained calm and empathetic but also not afraid to state her beliefs and positions.
Having worked with her on both the Economic Development and Senior Center Committees for the city, I was so impressed with her dedication. She never missed a meeting, always came prepared and exuded a constant positive spirit that inspired others to follow through on their commitments. Emeryville has lost a true icon.
Former Emeryville Police Chief Ken James (1998-2015)
Former Emeryville Police Chief Ken James could not be reached for comment, but James was among a handful of speakers who came out to acknowledge Davis at her final council meeting in 2016. A meeting Davis was not in attendance for as she notoriously shied away from being praised. [1:35:19]
”She kept our toes to the fire especially along fiscal matters. She also kept my toes to the fire as far as public safety and the police department. She made sure we were not frivolous in the money that was being allocated but she always gave support.”
Brynnda Collins (Emery School Board Member)
I told Nora I’m going to grow up to be just like you. When I ran for city council, she was really tickled and I told her again “see, I told you, I want to grow up to be just like you.”
Bob Canter – Former Emeryville Chamber of Commerce CEO
I arrived in Emeryville in July of 2001 after being hired as the first-ever President & CEO of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce. Even though I had lived and worked in the East Bay for over 20 years, I knew little about Emeryville and not sure what to expect, even though I had many years experience as a government relations executive with a major Oakland-based corporation.
I knew from experience — primarily through my many years of work with the Oakland Chamber of Commerce — that representing a Chamber of Commerce in the left-wing, anti-business San Francisco Bay Area was not an easy gig, and often a convenient target of local elected officials looking to score a few quick political points with the loudest anti-everything crowd.
When I attended my first Emeryville City Council meeting and had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! This was a City where you didn’t get made fun of by having the temerity to stand up and oppose a proposed tax increase on business. The City Council members and the City staff really listened to what the business community had to say.
I soon learned that Nora Davis was the Chamber’s best friend. One of the few Emeryville City Council members with actual business experience, Nora knew what it took to keep a city economically viable. Working with long-time City Manager John Flores, Nora and the pro-business City Council majority were true visionaries, transforming Emeryville from a dying industrial town to a national model of modern urban redevelopment. This work continued under Patrick O’Keefe, and it was always Nora Davis in the forefront.
Nora was tough: In any discussion she cut to the heart of the matter, and you always knew where you stood with her. She believed in the power of the private sector, and understood that the “quality of life” everyone talks about (but few seem able to define with any degree of precision) only comes from a strong private sector creating jobs, producing goods and services, and generating tax revenue for the city; a philosophy long since ignored and forgotten by Emeryville’s current elected officials.
Nora’s retirement from the City Council was literally the end of an era in Emeryville: An Era of pro-business support and decision-making. Nora gave everything she had to the City, and in her late 80’s, when she had no more to give she decided not to run for another term, as did several other pro-business Council members, including Dick Kassis and Ruth Atkin. This began the Bad Era, which saw the City succumb to the anti-business philosophy that now pervades everywhere in California, and has resulted in the closure of many small businesses — especially restaurants — in Emeryville from onerous, expensive, and poorly thought-out ordinances and policies adopted by the new, anti-business City Council.
Nora Davis was one of a kind; I learned a great deal from her and tried to employ her wise advice and counsel as much as I was able. I retired from the Chamber of Commerce in January, 2015, not long after Nora Davis decided not to run for another term. She left me with man pleasant memories and many valuable lessons. If someone were to one day decide to erect a monument to an official who represents the best of what Emeryville was, that monument would be of Nora Davis.
Steve Kellar & John Schuerman (Current & Former Planning Commissioners)
When we think of Nora, the first word that comes to mind is gratitude. We are incredibly grateful for Nora being a driving force in the transformation of Emeryville. Being longtime residents of Emeryville, we witnessed and are the beneficiaries of her tireless work. We are grateful for the many times that Nora met with us for coffee and listened to us as we excitedly told her about things that we’ve seen in other great cities that we want to bring to Emeryville. She was never dismissive. Even when we presented ideas that were way ‘out of the box’, Nora’s eyes sparkled and with a smile, she would say, “That’s the kind of thing we do in Emeryville”. When we disagreed on things, we walked away respecting each other.
Nora is a role model. She lived “be the change you want to see in the world”. We have appreciation for her humbleness. Never once did we hear of her accomplishments when talking with her. She did what she did because of her passion.
Nora encouraged us to get involved and reminded us to patiently keep the big picture in mind. “Little steps in the right direction” are her words of wisdom that stick with us. We also smile and think of Nora when we’re sitting through tedious meetings and remember her saying “Can we move this along?”
We’re grateful for Nora’s impact on Emeryville and on our lives.
Patrick O‘Keeffe – Former Emeryville City Manager (2006-2013)
To me, Nora was the granite strength of the City’s leadership. She was open to different opinions and values in making her decisions, but unwavering in her commitment to truth and honesty in how the government should be run. Her nearly three decades of incredible hours of commitment to the City was unsurpassed, and provided the foundation for the Council to rely on, even for political newcomers that may not have agreed with all of her positions. When people ask me what was the key to Emeryville’s successful transformation, I always point to the consistent political leadership over decades. Nora was the keystone to that leadership. Emeryville was blessed to have someone so dedicated to its well being. Not for personal gain, not for higher office. Nora was about Emeryville. I’m very appreciative of what I learned from her. Let’s keep her spirit and her example in our memories.
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What a beautiful gathering of comments about a life well-lived.
What a great summary: “Davis touted her focus on the “basics” of city administration which she noted to include Budget, Police, Fire and Public Works.”
The current council members want to spend our taxes changing the world. One of their focus areas: increasing the wealth of union members who don’t even live here – is rooted in corruption.
Thanks for including interviews of Nora’s peers. Noteworthy is the respect despite disagreement. There is no disagreement on todays city council – just bobbleheads.
Nora Davis mentioned to me that she and her husband kept a boat at the Berkeley marina? Am I correct?
Nice job Ron, as always. I knew Nora and spoke with her on a number of issues and always found her to be engaged and committed. In the over 50 years that I lived and worked in Emeryville I would definitely nominate her as the best councilperson that Emeryville had during that time.
Hi there! This is Nora’s grand-daughter. Thank you so much for this article and these tributes, I will treasure them forever!
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What an incredible woman and a great story.