Berkeley has a new city council member to represent District 2 as it heads into 2021. This time, it’s a 32-year-old West Berkeley-bred poet and transportation activist who calls on Pokémon references to describe bigotry, and is banking on lifelong experience in the district to guide his first experience as an elected official.
Taplin was born at Alta Bates Hospital and attended the recently renamed Ruth Acty Elementary School (previously Jefferson), Martin Luther King Middle School and Berkeley High. He was president of the Gay-Straight Alliance during his time at Berkeley High, and is following in the footsteps of Darryl Moore, who was the first queer, Black council member in Berkeley.
Supporters of Taplin and those of former Councilmember Cheryl Davila may balk at the idea of political similarities between the two D2 representatives, but Taplin and Davila do share at least one tradition.
When Davila beat Moore in 2014, she was the first council member to unseat an incumbent in almost 20 years. In this November’s election, Taplin (who was endorsed by the majority of the Council) took 62% of the votes to Davila’s 38%, winning an incumbent’s seat yet again and cutting Davila’s tenure on the City Council to a single term.
Taplin launched his campaign in a pre-pandemic world in May 2019, and many of the issues he’s been vocal about have impacted his own life in Berkeley. Taplin is pushing for an end to displacement by increasing housing density after having experienced an eviction himself, and wants to increase youth access to art and cultural programs, like Youth Speaks, that he was a part of as a child.
The pandemic has interrupted some of his ambitions around a robust public transportation system, but he said many of his constituents are transit-dependent for their work, even during shelter-in-place orders. He’s currently taking care of his mother, who has multiple sclerosis and diabetes, and he wants a Berkeley pedestrian ecosystem that wouldn’t be impossible for her to navigate.
Taplin hasn’t had a major role in city politics apart from positions on the city’s transportation and civic arts commissions. He was an English instructional assistant at Berkeley City College and has pursued poetry for nearly his whole life, which he says guides the way he thinks and has made him an active listener.
Mainly, he says he believes in West Berkeley, and his constituents have shown that they support his vision as the city works to come out on the other side of COVID-19.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he told Berkeleyside at Strawberry Creek Park, which has been a favorite spot of his for election photo-ops, and a treasured location from his childhood. “And, well, if I’m going to be here, I might as well get to work so kids like me can keep growing up here.”
Taplin will have to bridge a generational divide between the old and new West Berkeley
During a special meeting on Dec. 8 about the Adeline Corridor Plan in South Berkeley, Taplin offered a quick apology to Councilmember Ben Bartlett before voting against his proposal that would have approved a shorter, less dense affordable housing project.
It was Taplin’s first meeting after being sworn into the council days before, and he passed on most of his speaking time while others made speeches, and thanked staff for their six years of work. He was wearing his first suit — one he had originally ordered for his swearing-in ceremony, but hadn’t arrived in time.
Thank you Councilmember @RashiKesarwani. It is my great honor & privilege to serve our City & represent West Berkeley alongside you.— Terry Taplin🚰🏳️🌈🥑🌹🚲🚍✍️🏾 (@TaplinTerry) December 3, 2020
I ordered a suit but it hasn't arrived in time for tomorrow’s public ceremony. https://t.co/SXo0kr66MM pic.twitter.com/vXkxp8LfwE
Taplin, along with with Mayor Jesse Arreguín, council members Bartlett, Lori Droste, Sophie Hahn, Rashi Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson and Susan Wengraf, voted to add another story on buildings along Adeline. The vote upheld his position as a progressive, pro-development housing advocate, but it also went against the wishes of the Friends of Adeline, which has received support from many older residents in the city, including esteemed Black activists like Edythe Boone.
During election season, the organization published a letter of endorsement for Bartlett and Davila which said the two incumbents were the only candidates who could represent Black Berkeleyans.
Taplin said it was one of many times during the election that his Blackness was called into question, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes it’s been because he doesn’t align with organizations that claim to represent Black residents, he said, and other times it’s because he doesn’t fit every person’s mold of who a Black person should be.
“I don’t have to explain to non-Black people what makes me a Black person, because I’m too busy living my Black experience.”
“I don’t have to explain to non-Black people what makes me a Black person, because I’m too busy living my Black experience,” Taplin said. “There’s a lot of tokenism that goes on in Berkeley, and you have a lot of people speaking on behalf of Black people without speaking to Black people.”
If his detractors really cared about Black people in the city, Taplin said, they would be fighting against the impacts of environmental racism in the city, like asthma in West Berkeley neighborhoods due to pollution from Interstate 80, or standing up for their rights before it came time to block housing.
They would have been there, he added, when his childhood best friend was evicted and forced out of their home, or when a friend of his was shot to death.
The remainder of the time, Taplin acknowledges that he has a lot of work to do to bridge generational divides between his constituents. In housing, policing, and nearly every other issue, differences pop up between residents who have lived in the city for generations and felt the scars of the past, and those who are younger and newer to the issues.
Many older West Berkeleyans oppose police patrols and want neighborhood safety networks, he said, but also aren’t comfortable with an absent police force. This is a contrast to progressive residents both young and old who have called for the abolition of prisons and police departments, and some of whom in June called for the resignation of Berkeley Police Chief Andy Greenwood, along with defunding police.
Taplin supports the council’s Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce, Bartlett’s Ceasefire program, and said during his campaign that he’s in favor of reallocating police revenue to other departments through a data-informed approach. This falls short of language to defund the police as Davila had proposed, but Taplin said it’s more in line with what he’s heard from constituents.
He said he ultimately wants to listen to his constituents before deciding what they want, something he feels his predecessor didn’t manage to do.
His district has seen the most gun violence this year, along with being adjacent to South Berkeley — where 19-year-old Sereinat’e Henderson , who was pregnant, was shot and killed in a drive-by on Oct. 21.
In instances like these, he said he’s prioritized making himself available to those affected. Oftentimes, these conversations have happened on streets he frequented growing up, and where he still spends his time as an adult.
“People want to know that you’re responsive to them, that you care about their concerns, and that you’ll follow up,” he said. “Some people know that [the city] has limited resources, but they want to know that you’re looking out for them.”
Navigating City Council will be part of the learning curve for Taplin
Karen Hemphill, a Berkeley School Board member for 12 years and an activist in the city since the 70’s, had initially planned to run against Davila this year, but instead decided to throw her support behind Taplin. She signed her name to an opinion piece with Arreguín and several others in October endorsing Taplin, and calling him a “homegrown leader” that won’t offer progressivism as an empty promise.
“I was really running because I thought there was a void in leadership in this district. As I got to know Terry, I felt that he would fill that void well,” Hemphill said. “I’m over 60, so time to let a younger generation with deep roots in the community have their time in the sun, so to speak.”
As families grapple with job loss during the pandemic, consolidate in small homes and give up outlets like social gatherings and sports, she said stressors are high — and West Berkeley has seen some of the violent consequences. She said Taplin understands this dynamic, and wants to be a strong presence of support.
“He comes from a working class family, the kind of family that, in many ways, is not here anymore in this district. So I think he relates to some of the angst around that,” she said.
Hemphill also pushed back on criticisms that as Taplin joins a progressive-majority Council, he won’t speak for himself or introduce ideas that go against the “left-of-center” grain. But if he wants to pass policy, she said, compromise is a strategy, rather than a sign that he’s “part of the establishment.”
“There’s this assumption that he doesn’t have his own mind,” Hemphill said. “I don’t know that he’s the most revolutionary person that’s ever run for City Council…but I would call Terry a pragmatic progressive, and someone who will listen.”
Ben Gerhardstein was one of the first people to hear from Taplin that he intended to run for Council, and he said he’s watched Taplin study his way to the top in the months since. Gerhardstein (who was dismissed from the city transportation commission by Davila) is a co-founder of Walk Bike Berkeley, and supports Taplin’s transportation goals.
“I’m not naive to think that he’s not going to take some controversial positions — thats the nature of the job — but I think he’s going to do a better job explaining…why he’s thinking through these issues, that he’s accounting for different positions,” Gerhardstein said, adding that Taplin will be more approachable and transparent than his predecessor.
Taplin is well aware that he’s new to the scene, and that his votes — not his ambitions — are going to speak for him when it comes time to assess his track record. But he wants to make it clear that his ego is not driving his leadership.
“Service has to precede ego, it has to precede agenda, it has to precede all those ancient beefs from the 90’s, because this city will, hopefully, outlast every single last one of our egos,” Taplin said. “That’s the gem we’re mining for — that future city.”