Councilmember Lori Droste reflects on weeks after District 8 seat victory

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Ryan Serpa/Staff

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Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste has never seen her 3-year-old son behave as well as he did when they went to his first City Council meeting together. Droste said he now asks to come to “the castle” — their nickname for her office — with her.

Just like her son, Droste was new to the council. In November, she won the District 8 council seat by 16 votes, narrowly beating candidate George Beier after incumbent Gordon Wozniak, who served 12 years in the seat, decided not to run again.

Politics have been in Droste’s life since her youth, yet her interest in running for public office grew while working toward her master’s degree at Mills College in Oakland. As one of the two youngest members of City Council and the only member with school-aged children, she’s been cited as introducing a fresh viewpoint to the council. She’s bringing to the table a brand new political record, one that is just starting to be written.

“I am really a newbie, which is both a blessing and a curse,” Droste said.

Political prelude

Since she was a child, politics have hovered in the backdrop of Droste’s life. Her mother was the mayor of her hometown, and she attended pro-abortion marches when she was young despite living in a conservative community. After moving to the Bay Area, Droste was involved in activities promoting social justice, including campaigning for same-sex marriage.

When Droste studied at Mills College, she became interested in amplifying the opinions of underrepresented groups in politics. Droste wanted to be behind the scenes of the process of creating public policy and effecting social change — but one of her professors ultimately influenced her to run for public office.

“This professor was like, ‘Hey, guess what? The biggest way you are going to impact social change is by running for office,’ and I was like OK, I’ll do it,” Droste said.

Anne Moses, president of IGNITE, a program to build political ambition in women, taught Droste in her course about women and politics at Mills College. She said Droste was highly analytical and open to hearing both sides of anything, often desiring that people remained noncombative.

Moses explained that her aim in IGNITE is for more women — such as Droste — to run for office.

In preparation for running for office, Droste participated in Emerge California, a program that focuses on training Democratic women to run for office. Executive director Kimberly Ellis said Droste was very clear that Berkeley City Council was a seat for which she wanted to run.

“She loves the city of Berkeley,” Ellis said. “She is working very hard. She is making sure that Berkeley continues to be a place where people can afford to work and live, especially the small businesses.”

Berkeley beginnings

For Droste, the city of Berkeley symbolized everything that her rural hometown in Ohio was not, representing open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity. Since moving to her current neighborhood 17 years ago, she has served as the chair for the city’s Commission on the Status of Women and was a member of the Housing Advisory Commission.

Droste noted, however, that she is the first City Council member in more than a decade who was never a legislative aide. Legislative aides work in City Hall and have often been elected as council members. While Droste has been following Berkeley politics for many years, she said she is still “very fresh.”

Wozniak, who decided not to re-run to give a chance to new competitors, expressed confidence in Droste and said he felt that though her competitors were strong, Droste ultimately had a convincing victory.

Droste won after all rounds of ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank their top-three candidates, and one candidate is eliminated if none receive more than 50 percent of the vote.

Aside from Beier, Droste competed against Berkeley neighborhood leader Jacquelyn McCormick and former Zoning Adjustments Board chair Mike Alvarez Cohen — whom Wozniak endorsed — for the District 8 seat. McCormick and Cohen finished with 837 and 1300 votes, respectively, which were eventually consolidated into Beier and Droste’s vote, adding up to slightly above 50 percent of the vote for Droste and slightly below 50 percent for Beier.

“(Droste) represents the younger generation of residents,” Wozniak said. “She has young kids who will be going into the Berkeley schools.”

Droste did have her political knowledge questioned during her campaign, when the Berkeley Tenants Union, or BTU, posted a questionnaire that asked whether candidates supported a rent-control ordinance in Berkeley. Droste responded that she needed more information on the ordinance, which prompted the union to not support her in the election.

But Katherine Harr, secretary of BTU, explained that because the union does not know Droste very well, it is open to working with her.

“We certainly don’t take her as an enemy of these policies; it kind of struck us as a little disingenuous,” Harr said. “I don’t want to piss her off. We really need her.”

Harr said BTU plans on working with Droste to bring “her up to speed,” and, with Droste’s background on affordable housing, Harr believes she will be sympathetic to BTU’s desires.

Droste, who calls herself a “data-driven person,” said she was never against rent control but only wanted more information to best maximize affordability for people to have housing.

“That is my fundamental, ultimate goal — to make sure that people who study here, who work here, can live here,” Droste said. “There is no other agenda.”

Adapting and aspiring

Droste was set to be sworn into office on the evening of Dec. 9,  the same evening that protests across Berkeley caused a City Council meeting to be canceled. The protests, which were fueled by grand jury decisions not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men Eric Garner and Michael Brown, took  a prominent part in Droste’s first few weeks on City Council.

For one of her first votes as a council member, Droste voted to drop the charges in the Black Friday 14 case, which involved protesters chaining themselves to BART trains: She considered the decision to drop charges a bold move by City Council.

Despite the turmoil in the beginning of her term, Droste said she does not feel anxiety about the job moving forward and is prepared to grapple with conflicting perspectives.

“I fully acknowledge I have a learning curve,” Droste said. “I am not nervous about anything.”

District 8 resident and close friend Madeline Jay recognized Droste’s inexperience with budgetary issues, yet Jay said she believes Droste’s fresh viewpoint on the council is also an asset.

Droste describes herself as a bridge between the two factions on the council — the so-called “majority,” which included Wozniak, often considered to side with Mayor Tom Bates, and a three-member “minority” that often dissents from the rest of the council.

At the few meetings she has attended thus far, Droste has voted largely with the majority of council on such issues as a decision to declare one controversial cannabis dispensary a public nuisance and to investigate the environmental effects of a West Berkeley asphalt plant.

While Droste said members of the council may have different approaches, she believes they all have the best intentions for the community.

In the long term, Droste’s goals for Berkeley are broad. She hopes that housing in Berkeley becomes more affordable in the next few years. Citing housing in the Downtown region as an example, Droste explained that she also wants City Council to partner with transit agencies to improve public transportation.

Issues of affordability and economic vitality — as well as safe streets, pedestrian and bicyclist infrastructure, and better partnership with public schools — are on Droste’s agenda for her upcoming term.

“I understand things move at a snail’s pace,” Droste said. “I love to see Berkeley become more affordable, more walkable, more bikeable, within our schools.”

A familiar face in Berkeley

Aside from her son, Droste has a 1-year-old daughter and a wife, whom she acknowledges shouldered a lot of the burden in raising the kids. Droste said she enjoys being a good role model for her children in terms of public service, and she refers to her family as the “bee’s knees.”

“My wife was incredibly supportive,” Droste said. “People are excited to see someone with a family on City Council. I take that very seriously — that I will be a voice for parents.”

The recent campaign left Droste with few regrets and several memories, including the surprise of overhearing a volunteer say, “I love you, too” to a caller during phone banking, as well as a pair of pants she wore that she said her campaign manager regrets.

Droste is optimistic about her future as a council member, although when it comes to adjusting to her new position, she noted that she has become more self-conscious about her appearance now that people often recognize her.

“Only in Berkeley do you have that engaged of a political populace — people in other cities have no idea who their City Council is,” Droste said. “It’ s nice to know that people are engaged politically … and then I have a bad hair day.”

Contact Robert Tooke at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.