By Joe Livernois
Barbara Shipnuck was a groundbreaker in Monterey County’s political scene, the first woman ever elected to the Board of Supervisors and a strong presence who exerted her intelligence and her passion to champion social programs for the county. She was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1978 at the age of 36, and was re-elected three times.
Shipnuck died on Jan. 6 in Long Beach after suffering a stroke on New Year’s Eve, according to her family. She was 79.
It’s difficult to imagine today what a big deal it was then, to have been an outsider in more ways than one, and to penetrate the old boys network that had its thumb on the operations of the county. Shipnuck was a strong and smart woman, and she was a relative newcomer to Monterey County, a transplant from Brooklyn. It wasn’t easy, and it took an organized effort, said Karin Strasser Kauffman, who joined Shipnuck on the Board of Supervisors in 1984.
“It was all men, all those years since the beginning,” said Strasser Kauffman in an email exchange this week. “Barbara was elected in 1978, with a tremendous volunteer effort by the recently established National Women’s Political Caucus of Monterey County, founded by Ruth Menmuir, Susan Buser and myself. There had never been a female county supervisor.”
The caucus campaigns were strictly grassroots, said Strasser Kauffman. “We had no consultants, advisors or official fundraisers in those days. But we were heavily involved in our community at the grassroots efforts, as were our ‘kitchen cabinets.’”
Strasser Kauffman said it was “certainly helpful” that Shipnuck was with her on the Board of Supervisors, “if only to change the tenor of the meetings and the nature of items on the agenda. Barbara and I had some running jokes between us, since at that time numerous local organizations, clubs and functions were restricted to ‘men only’ membership and participation.”
Retired Rep. Sam Farr served several years on the Board of Supervisors and later faced Shipnuck in a primary election for U.S. Congress, after then-Rep. Leon Panetta left the job to become director of the Office of Management and Budget for President Bill Clinton.
“She broke the glass ceiling in this county,” Farr said. While they didn’t always get along politically, he acknowledged that she left an “indelible imprint on Monterey County.”
“We wouldn’t have the Natividad Medical Center today without her,” he said. Shipnuck constantly advocated on behalf of what was then a county-operated hospital that was a constant drain on county financing. For years local leaders faced the prospect of shutting the place down, but Shipnuck and others recognized that Natividad was the last resort for care for uninsured and underrepresented patients in the Salinas Valley. With her leadership, a multi-million dollar bond measure was passed that rehabilitated the old buildings and purchased modern equipment.
Along with jail funding, improvements to health care systems and the effort to save Natividad, Shipnuck was at the forefront of “historical accomplishments,” Farr said.
'She broke the glass ceiling in this county'
A native of the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, Shipnuck earned degrees at Brandeis and from Harvard, returning to New York to teach at a prep school in 1964. She ended up in Monterey County after meeting her eventual husband, David Shipnuck, while touring San Francisco. David Shipnuck took a position at Hartnell College, and Barbara taught social studies at North Salinas High.
She quickly immersed herself in local policy issues and was active with the League of Women Voters. She stunned local experts by defeating an entrenched incumbent, Ed Norris, to win her first election in 1978. Her supervisorial district took in most of Salinas. Headstrong and confident in her positions, she often offered her unique Brooklyn sensibilities to political discussions.
During her tenure, she was a reliable supporter of housing projects in the county. She argued that new development helped keep housing prices low in the region, but her position earned her critics among environmental progressives on the Monterey Peninsula. But she was also a reliable promoter of health and human services programs in the county, particular programs to improve health care, childhood education and eldercare. She advocated on behalf of local counties for safety-net legislation and affordable healthcare as a leader with the National Association of Counties.
“She moved easily among her sparkly constituents in Pebble Beach and Carmel but was most fulfilled advocating for working-class families in Salinas,” said her son, Alan. She took a high-profile role as president of the California State Association of Counties and was named County Leader of the Year by American City and County, a national magazine, in 1993.
Like many supervisors of her era, Shipnuck was politically ambitious; in 1993 she sought election to Congress. Shipnuck placed third in the primary — Sam Farr beat her — but her campaign was profiled in a New York Times story about organized efforts to get more women elected to office.
Farr said this week he thought Shipnuck would be his most challenging opponent — and he believes she would have won the primary and possibly a place in Congress if Monning had not been in the race. She and Farr were one of 27 candidates on the primary ballot, including 11 Democrats. Farr was considered Panetta’s heir apparent in Congress, a man with a name that everyone on the Monterey Peninsula recognized, as the son of a former state senator. By then he was also a state Assembly member.
After the primary election she lost, Shipnuck delivered a couple boxes of files to Farr. She explained that she had spent a large sum of money in opposition research against Farr — hiring people to find negative stuff in an opponent’s background. “She told me that I might want it because all anyone could find were things she supported, and she thought it could help me in the future,” he said. “I always thought that was nice of her.”
She left Monterey County in 1996 to become deputy secretary for health care policy in Maryland, and eventually took a job as director of public affairs for Kaiser Permanente.
After retirement she traveled around the world, visiting places like Iran, Namibia, Bhutan and Uzbekistan. She lived in the southern California city of Signal Hill and at the time of her death was president of the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. She is survived by two children, Alan and Louisa, and numerous grandchildren.
Donations in her honor may be made to the Barbara Shipnuck Memorial Fund for Tikkun Olam at https://ncjwlongbeach.org/tributes.
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