Exclusive: Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste won’t seek a third term

“I feel like I’ve served with the seriousness and integrity that the voters deserve,” Droste told Berkeleyside in an exclusive interview. “My family needs me now.”

Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste portrait
Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste at her Berkeley home, April 27, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Lori Droste, who has represented District 8 on the Berkeley City Council for nearly eight years, will not seek re-election in November, she announced today.

Read more about Lori Droste in past Berkeleyside coverage

Droste was largely a political outsider when she ran in the tight race to replace three-term Councilmember Gordon Wozniak when he retired in November 2014. She managed to eke out a win by a 16-vote margin in a nailbiter ranked-choice contest that took more than a week to resolve.

Since Droste took office, she has fought hard to end exclusionary zoning in Berkeley, winning a nod from the White House for that work. She also tangled on Twitter with Walt Disney over PTA film screening fees at Emerson Elementary, ultimately securing an apology from Disney’s CEO along with a personal pledge that he would donate to school coffers.

“It’s been amazing to be able to have an influence on not just area politics but also national politics,” Droste told Berkeleyside in a recent exclusive interview. “I feel like I’ve served with the seriousness and integrity that the voters deserve. My family needs me now.”

Droste and her wife Carrie Gray have two young children at Emerson: Simon, who is “almost 11,” and Cora, who is 8.

Lori Droste — the first openly gay woman on the Berkeley City Council — with her wife Carrie Gray (left) and their children, Simon and Cora. Courtesy: Droste family

When she originally ran for office in 2014, Droste told her family she would cap her public service at two terms. Her goal was to provide a fresh perspective on city politics and do more to represent the needs of families with young children and others who were unlikely to come often to council meetings or make their voices heard in public forums.

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Lori Droste at her Berkeley home, April 27, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“I wanted to be a representative for people who wanted to have sensible decision-makers,” Droste said. “I’ve made some changes. I feel like I’ve done my time.”

When reflecting on her legislative accomplishments over the years, Droste puts the 2021 council vote to end exclusionary zoning in Berkeley, by allowing more multi-unit projects and affordable housing throughout the city, at the top of her list.

That work is still underway as part of the city’s Housing Element update but has garnered widespread interest across the nation.

Sen. Nancy Skinner said Droste has brought an important perspective to the Berkeley City Council, particularly in relation to its housing needs.

“She has been the council member to get Berkeley refocused on housing and to understand that our zoning policies, our so-called ‘neighborhood preservation’ and such, have basically led to outrageous costs of housing, a shortage of housing and a lack of diversity in our city,” Skinner told Berkeleyside on Monday. “Here she is representing the district that brought about exclusionary zoning at the turn of the century and she authored the ordinance to get rid of it.”

Droste, who worked with those experiencing homelessness, taught high school and earned a master’s degree in public policy before getting into public service, said she herself learned from Skinner about the importance of getting along well with the people in the city who are actually tasked with doing the work officials outline in new laws and policies.

“You need good relationships with staff if you want to get anything done,” Droste said.

A data-driven, pragmatic approach

That perspective, in part, is what led Droste to develop a system some years back to help city leaders come up with a shared set of priorities as far as what they ask staff to get done. Before she was elected, council members put forward hundreds of program and policy requests without offering a clear path or vision about what needed to happen first.

“Knowing that we can’t do everything, how do we ensure that we’re taking care of the basic services?” she asked. “We can pass all the ordinances we want, but how effective is the ordinance? Is there someone there to actually do the work?”

Lori Droste at a Berkeley City Council meeting, Dec. 11, 2018. Credit: Emilie Raguso

Under the new system, which feeds into the city’s ongoing strategic planning efforts, there is still a project backlog. But there is also broader agreement on the dais as far as what the priority budget and project asks from council are.

Droste’s methodical approach to problem-solving and policymaking was in evidence just last week when she spent several days creating a matrix to help her colleagues understand the differences and overlap between two broad proposals related to reimagining public safety in Berkeley. Her colleagues said that document helped them do their work.

Over the years, Droste has also pushed for higher council salaries, so that more people with more diverse backgrounds consider running for office, and boosting city reserves to ensure the municipal budget is on solid ground.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf said Droste’s analytical skills, as well as her spreadsheets and charts, have been an invaluable asset over the years.

“Her insistence on everything being data-driven has really informed council decisions. She provides a really rational and very pragmatic lens to policymaking,” Wengraf said. “It’s very refreshing. We’ve really never had a public policy maven on the council.”

Lori Droste in 2018. Credit: Emilie Raguso

Wengraf also credited Droste for her passion for the issues she takes on and described her as a “fierce advocate.”

“If she believes in something, she fights really hard,” Wengraf said. “So it’s wonderful to be her ally. And it’s not so good to be her opponent.”

Droste said, even amid disagreement, she has always aimed to take the high road.

“People may not agree with me 100% of the time, but I think they can count on me to be honest and straightforward,” she said.

Not everyone has been a fan

Droste does have her critics. Some community members have condemned her for pushing for more police attention and enforcement at Willard Park following an influx of people experiencing homelessness there and a number of associated public health concerns reported by residents and city staff.

Droste has also been a more outspoken supporter of the Berkeley Police Department than many of her colleagues on the dais. That’s no surprise, however: Public safety has been part of her platform from the beginning.

“We can’t tolerate aggressive, unlawful behavior, especially if it’s impacting our children,” she told Berkeleyside during the recent interview. “People should be able to feel safe in their city.”

Others say Droste is too much in favor of development, including market-rate housing, and too friendly with local real estate interests — including the broker who lent her free space for a 2018 campaign event, resulting in a minor campaign finance violation the following year. (She said the matter stemmed from confusion regarding what was at the time the city’s new public financing law.)

People in this camp have said her vision of a higher-density Berkeley will change the city for the worse.

“As usual, Lori Droste is trying to dictate what Berkeley residents should want, because it is much more important to add another 50,000 residents than to preserve our quality of life,” wrote a reader using the moniker Rivendell Dweller on Berkeleyside last year in response to an article about a council debate over objective zoning standards. “Sunlight is one of the primary reasons people originally moved to California and the Bay Area, and for her to say it is not important demonstrates clearly why she should pack her bags and move back to her small home town in Ohio.”

“Real-world impacts” have shifted the housing debate

But, as the years have gone by, the council majority view regarding California’s housing crisis, and the connections between the impending climate crisis and the need for higher-density development in the urban core, have largely shifted in the direction of Droste’s ideas.

Skyrocketing rents and housing prices, displacement, proliferating homeless encampments, the inability of many young Berkeleyans to buy into the local housing market and the intensifying climate emergency have all helped create more cohesion on council in terms of the city’s housing policy.

“People are seeing the real-world impacts,” Droste said.

The early years: Councilmember Lori Droste in 2015 with then-colleagues Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Droste said she had also been pleased over the years to see the City Council becoming younger and more reflective of the city’s demographics with the election of council members Rigel Robinson, Rashi Kesarwani and Terry Taplin in 2018. Having broader representation, she said, will ensure Berkeley continues to be a “welcoming and inclusive place” for everyone.

Councilmember Terry Taplin told Berkeleyside on Monday that what he had learned from Droste was “the importance of having strong boundaries and standing up to bullies.”

“She taught me that our duty is to represent the average, everyday Berkeley resident who likely will never even know who we are — and not just the loudest voices at every meeting,” he said. “Above all, she taught me the value of humility, openness to learning and the grace to admit mistakes.”

Droste still hopes to find a successor

Lori Droste (right) with her wife Carrie Gray and their children, Simon and Cora. Courtesy: Droste family

As of this week, it remained an open question as to who might fill the District 8 seat come November. According to city records, just one person has pulled papers to express interest in running for the office. But that could change once word gets out that there won’t be an incumbent to battle.

Droste told Berkeleyside she has not yet settled on a candidate to back.

“I just want somebody who is reasonable and respectful, and knows the city’s primary goal is to provide basic services to its residents,” she said, adding: “I have a few people in mind.”

Droste said she had spoken with people she thought might be interested but that, so far, public service in Berkeley had been a tough sell.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” she said. “It’s for people who are very passionate. I think a lot of people know it’s a commitment if you want to do a good job.”

What sort of commitment? Droste said she generally works “all day every day” to get the work done.

At this point, despite having been recruited to run for higher office, Droste said she has no plans to seek another seat at this time.

“It’s been an honor of a lifetime,” she said on Twitter in her announcement Tuesday morning about her decision not to run again.

Now, as a 25-year resident of Berkeley, she said she looks forward to seeing what the future will bring to the city.

In the coming months and years, she said she hopes Berkeley will continue its Vision Zero work to improve traffic safety, particularly for cyclists and pedestrians, and also try to consolidate some of its many commissions and committees. Council has voted in favor of that idea in concept, several times, but so far progress has been slow.

Ideally, Droste said, Berkeley would also move toward having fewer council districts. That way, council members would be accountable to a broader cross-section of the community rather than trying to please just one constituency. It would also make prioritizing projects and policies more straightforward and put less work on staffers who are already stretched too thin.

“It’s a complete no-brainer,” Droste said. “There are five people on School Board. Why isn’t it OK for council?”

Droste said her primary goal when her term is up is to spend more time with her family, particularly as her children, as they get a bit older, have begun to notice her absence more than they once did. And there’s also a significant scheduling conflict that’s cropped up: Council nights also happen to be when her kids’ sports events take place.

“I’m just going to be happy to be able to watch their soccer games on Tuesdays,” she said.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.