Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Evening Edition

Lorie Zapf’s Path From Foster Care To San Diego City Council

Students at the San Diego nonprofit Reality Changers listen to City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf speak about her challenging childhood on March 18, 2015.
Christopher Maue
Students at the San Diego nonprofit Reality Changers listen to City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf speak about her challenging childhood on March 18, 2015.
Lorie Zapf’s Path From Foster Care To San Diego City Council
Lorie Zapf’s Path From Foster Care To San Diego City Council
San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf represents Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and other coastal neighborhoods. But when she was growing up, she never would have expected to be where she is now.

One evening last month, San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf was talking about personal topics that don’t usually come up at city meetings.

“We were moving all the time. My mother would beat the crap out of us. She’d get angry and go into these alcoholic fits, just be really, really abusive,” she told a teenage boy as he nodded sympathetically.

KPBS is profiling the nine people who make up the San Diego City Council, and sharing details about their backgrounds and their goals. They each represent a different geographic area of the city, but their actions affect all of the people who live in America's eighth largest city.

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf

Represents: District 2, which includes Point Loma, Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach.

Age: 56

Family: Husband Eric, daughters Tana, 16, and Myla, 14

College: Bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from California State University, Northridge, master’s degree in marketing communications from the University of Denver

Hometown: Los Angeles

Career: Started Boulder Bar Endurance, an energy bar company, with Eric. They sold it in 2002. Radio and television reporter in Reno/Tahoe area.

Other interests: Outdoor activities, including hiking, kayaking and trail riding.

Fun fact: Her daughter Tana just starred as Annie in Clairemont High School’s musical.

Zapf was in City Heights talking to teens about her own background as part of an after-school nonprofit program called Reality Changers. The 56-year-old opened up about her early years in hopes of inspiring the teens and showing them you can overcome a rough start in life.

“When you get to my age, you look back on it and you go, did all that really happen?” she said. “How could people be like that? How could your own parents do that to you?”

Zapf has been elected twice to the City Council in two different districts. The Republican first represented Clairemont and Mission Valley, then after redistricting was elected to represent Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and other coastal neighborhoods. She said her work now is something she never would have imagined doing when she was growing up in Los Angeles.

“I ended up eventually in a foster home. My brother, sister and I were separated and put into separate foster homes,” she said. “Actually, that was the first time I had any stability. I think I attended about 13 different schools, and I wasn’t even in the military.”

She said her foster parents put her on the path that eventually led her to politics.

“They were really role models and showed me a whole different life, and I really give them all the credit for who I am today,” she said.

Zapf went to California State University, Northridge, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. She then moved to Colorado and got a master’s degree at the University of Denver in marketing communications. After a chance meeting there, her life changed.

“Along comes this tourist from San Diego, and we started talking on the Pearl Street mall in Boulder and next thing I knew we were long-distance dating,” she said. “Not too long after that, I got engaged and moved to San Diego.”

She said when she first arrived she didn’t have a job, so she helped her husband Eric start Boulder Bar Endurance, an energy bar company. Then in 2010 she was elected to the City Council. Her foster mother swore her in at that first inauguration.

Her second swearing-in ceremony this past December did not go exactly as planned. A group protesting police brutality following the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City demonstrated outside Golden Hall before the inauguration. The protesters then moved inside and silently demonstrated while Zapf and others were sworn in.

Afterward, one of Zapf’s staffers was overheard by a KPBS reporter calling the protesters “f------ idiots with their hands up.” The staffer also said, “I wanted to shoot them." Zapf suspended the woman without pay and wouldn’t comment further when asked recently about the incident.

In a statement after it happened, Zapf called herself “the first Latina elected to the San Diego City Council.” That was met with more criticism.

State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, wrote on Twitter that she wanted to hear more about Zapf’s interactions with the Latino community.

Zapf said people questioning her identity doesn’t phase her.

“My mom’s side came to this country from Mexico, so on my mom’s side I have a big Mexican family,” she said. Her mom is now deceased. “I really grew up with a real ethnic Mexican upbringing.”

Asked specifically about Gonzalez’s tweet, she said, “What certain people say has no impact on me whatsoever, and that’s one of them. She’s on the opposite side. It’s all political. It doesn’t affect me at all.”

Another challenge this year has been transitioning to a new district.

“We have coastal issues, tourism issues, very built-out older communities that we’re trying to retrofit, put in roads, walkability, bike paths,” Zapf said.

A recent project she's taken on is updating city laws about vacation rentals through websites like Airbnb.com.

She said the neighborhoods she now serves also come with more involved citizens.

“They want their communities to be better, they want to get things done,” the councilwoman said. “And I’m trying to work with all of them and be there to support what their goals are and try to get things through the city, which is not the easiest thing to do sometimes.”

Zapf hopes this year to work with the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture and nonprofits to supplement arts programs that have been cut from schools. Her own teenage daughters act, sing, and play the piano, clarinet, tenor saxophone and guitar.

As Zapf described their achievements to KPBS, she surprised herself by tearing up.

“There is absolutely nothing better in my life than coming home and having dinner and hearing this awesome music, and it’s my own children,” she said.

“I sometimes get emotional because I think about the lives my children have versus how I grew up, and the opportunities that other people gave me, and how I’ve been able to take that and now I have an opportunity by being a City Council member and using that as a platform to get out and hopefully inspire others that they can be here, too. That they can do what I’m doing, and they can have families that now are like my children. They’re safe. They’re secure. They’re happy.”

Zapf delivered this message at the Reality Changers meeting by asking students where they want to go to college and telling them they can make it.

“You felt that there was something inside of you that was different, that you want something different, right?” she asked a group of young women. They nodded.

Even though she wasn’t in her district, Zapf told the teens them that in some ways she feels more at home with them in City Heights.

“I think kids here can probably relate to me more than my own kids, because they don’t really know what I went through and they never really went through anything bad. You know?” she asked.

But when the meeting ended, she got to return to her own home in Bay Ho, where her own daughters were likely filling the house with music and enjoying the life that Zapf and her husband have made for them.

San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf talks with students at a Reality Changers meeting in City Heights on March 18, 2015.
Christopher Maue
San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf talks with students at a Reality Changers meeting in City Heights on March 18, 2015.