If you would have asked Lauren Berkowitz three years ago if she’d be running for a spot on Burien’s City Council, she probably would have laughed. But the 29-year-old University of Washington law student wasn’t planning a path to political victory after finishing her undergraduate degree at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2007.
Following her graduation, Lauren worked as a union organizer for First United Food and Commercial Workers 21 and then with the Washington Federation of State Employers.
“There are very few disincentives for people to violate labor laws,” Berkowitz said, so she decided to go back to school and concentrate on a law degree that specializes in public-interest labor laws.
The call to serve her community came about from her need for social justice where she lives. After living in North Highline for three and a half years, Berkowitz felt frustrated that the city wouldn’t meet basic neighborhood needs.
“Our neighbors were promised things like sidewalks and haven’t seen them built,” she said. “Only one or two parts of Burien have all of those services, but they already have representation. I needed to get involved in order to get representation.”
Once she decided to run and began to go door to door to campaign, Berkowitz realized her neighbors’ concerns lined up with her own.
“They want sidewalks, animal control, traffic regulation,” she said. “I’m a person who knows how to bring people together.”
While another grueling year of law school at the UW lies ahead of her, Berkowitz will be taking her Position 1 seat in January.
“It’s definitely tough, but I like to be busy and social justice is paramount,” she said.
She believes her city council role dovetails nicely with her studies.
“There are a lot of labor concerns in Burien and there isn’t a lot of representation in those areas,” she said.
Five years ago, Berkowitz and her campaign coordinator Jeff Upthegrove met while he was making the transition to becoming a full-time campaign manager. Back then, Berkowitz wasn’t necessarily interested in politics, but he definitely saw in her a spark for public service.
“Lauren decided to run because she lives in North Highline and had a sense that the council in Burien was disconnected from a lot of the residents,” Upthegrove said. “She felt that her skills as an organizer would bring more citizen involvement in the city.”
That was the basis of Berkowitz’s message: More citizen involvement, more input, more listening to people’s needs, such as the need for sidewalks, streetlights, safe routes to school, traffic control, and other neighborhood issues.
“We raised about $14,000, which is fairly large amount in a Burien race,” said Upthegrove. “[Her opponent] Jack Block, Jr. outspent us by a few thousand dollars.”
Berkowitz’s campaign primarily used that money for direct mailings, but the primary focus was voter contact — knocking on every door possible. Upthegrove said that between Berkowitz and her supporters, they knocked on about 5,000 doors.
“That’s why I believe she won,” said Upthegrove. “When you meet a candidate face to face, it’s compelling.”
Block has held the council seat for eight years. Berkowitz said the biggest difference between them was her coalition-building experience.
“I have the ability to find common ground and have people come together in a collaborative way to accomplish those goals,” she said.
While there were not many contentious issues in the race, Berkowitz represents an area of Burien located close to a portion of unincorporated King County that the city would like to annex. In the end, Berkowitz said, this issue nearly cost her the victory.
“Though my opponent was pro-annexation, he decide to run as anti-annexation,” she said.
While Berkowitz had prepared herself for some level of criticism based on her age, she was caught off-guard by personal attacks she encountered on the Burien Blog.
“I was expecting to be told I was inexperienced; it’s an easy attack,” she said. “I can’t say that I’m surprised, but it was unexpected and disappointing.”