Teenager elected to South Robertson Neighborhood Council
Five feet tall, with dangly purple earrings and funky sneakers she decorated with a marker, Rachel Lester is one of the city’s newest elected representatives.
At 15, she’s also the youngest.
Rachel trounced her competition in this month’s South Robertson Neighborhood Council election, pulling in 144 votes. Her opponent, a man with two children and a college degree, mustered only 13.
When she begins her two-year term speaking for District 1 in June, she’ll have to hitch a ride from Mom to the monthly council meetings. Rachel doesn’t have her learner’s permit yet, much less a driver’s license.
Like the campaign of another successful politician, Barack Obama, Rachel’s made the most of Facebook. And like the president, she clinched her victory with the youth vote.
Last week, while reflecting on her win, she explained the political value of peer pressure.
“When a few teenagers do something,” she said, “a lot of teenagers do something.”
She said she hopes to harness that energy to bring change to her roughly 50-block district.
The area is predominantly white, with one of the city’s highest concentrations of Jewish residents. It includes much of what is known as the Pico-Robertson district, a stretch of Pico Boulevard that boasts dozens of kosher grocery stores and restaurants, including a kosher Subway sandwich franchise and the much-loved Shalom Pizza.
On Friday evenings, it is common to see families walking to services at the area’s many synagogues
Rachel is a sophomore at Shalhevet High School, a modern Orthdox Jewish school not far from her home.
One morning last week, about 200 teenagers were sitting in a school assembly, the boys in yarmulkes, the girls in knee-length skirts. They were having a school-wide discussion about genocide.
When the moderator posed a question to the students, Rachel was one of the first to raise her hand to speak. But before she could open her mouth, someone interrupted with a shout: “Remember, you’re speaking on behalf of your district!”
The room broke into laughter, and Rachel’s cheeks flushed plum.
The truth is that she didn’t tell her friends that she was running for office until just three days before the election. Why? Because the neighborhood council, she said, “kind of sounds kind of dorky.”
The whole thing came about a few months ago when Rachel’s mother found a flier publicizing the neighborhood council elections stuck to the front door of their charming Spanish style-home.
The flier said anyone 15 or older was eligible to vote or to run. Intrigued, mother and daughter went to an information session.
“It was really cool and fun,” her mother, Sherri Ziff Lester, said. “Halfway through it Rachel said, ‘I’m totally doing this.’ ”
Before Rachel’s mom allowed her to run for office, she made the teenager sit through two council board meetings, bureaucratic, sometimes boring affairs that have been known to run late into the night.
A straight-A student who skipped a grade, Rachel has a schedule already packed with choir practice, tutoring and meetings for the school newspaper, The Boiling Point, for which she is both a page designer and the features editor.
Each morning, she wakes early to run on the treadmill, and friends say she does her homework as soon as it’s assigned.
Some of her motivation can be traced to her mother, a life coach whose company RockYourLifeCoaching, counts many celebrities as clients. Last year Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke named Ziff Lester to Elle magazine’s power list of Hollywood women. Rachel’s father, Robert, is a lawyer.
After sitting through the meetings, Rachel filed the paperwork to become a candidate.
At a campaign speech to a crowd made up mostly of neighborhood council members, someone asked her what she would do about bringing economic development to the area.
She told them her abilities lie in organizing youth, not implementing economic plans.
“I’m a teenager,” she said. “That’s not my expertise.”
Even as election day loomed, though, she didn’t try to get votes at school.
“She’s not like one of those big-mouthed politicos,” her mother said. “If it had been up to her, she probably wouldn’t have told anybody.”
But then one of the rabbis at school announced Rachel’s campaign to the student body, and her friends rallied to help.
A late-in-the-game Facebook campaign, coupled with her mother’s e-mail blast to dozens of friends, helped earn her more votes than anyone else running for a spot on the council.
Although Rachel’s classmates are impressed by her victory -- her best friend, Maddy Merritt, 16, said it will “make her stand out” on college applications -- many seem unsure of what the position means.
Outside of the school cafeteria last week, a senior asked Rachel to explain.
“Like, what can you control?” the young woman asked. “How much power do you have?”
With the caution of a career politician, Rachel explained that wouldn’t begin her term until June. Until then, she said, she had a lot to learn.