Undergraduate Danielle Soto elected to Pomona City Council

Two days after her last final, Danielle Soto will be sworn in as a member of the Pomona City Council. Photo by J. McNulty.

Graduating senior Danielle Soto is cramming, but it's not finals she's worried about.

Soto is boning up on the Brown Act, the state's "open meeting" law, as she prepares to take a seat on the Pomona City Council.

Soto will be sworn in two days after her last exam.

"I'm super stressed out getting this done, but I'm almost done," said Soto, who is taking 18 units this quarter. "It feels like jumping off a cliff."

The new council's first meeting is December 15. "My calendar is already getting booked up," said Soto, who is being briefed by the city manager on local issues and by the city attorney on the legalities of being an elected official, including the Brown Act. With a population of nearly 150,000, Pomona is the fifth-largest city in Los Angeles County.

An environmental studies major, Soto decided to run for office when a council seat opened up over the summer. Although the timing wasn't ideal--Soto would have preferred to run after graduation--she knew she had to jump at the opportunity. Politics, she is quick to say, runs in the family.

Soto's grandfather, Philip Soto, was one of the first Latinos elected to the California Assembly, and her grandmother, Nell, served in both the state Assembly and Senate before retiring this year at the age of 81. She began her political career by winning the District 1 council seat that Soto just won. "It's pretty amazing stuff," said Soto.

"I've only known my grandmother as a public servant," said Soto, whose earliest memories include campaigning on her grandmother's behalf. "I remember sitting in the council chambers as a kid thinking, 'I want to do that.'"

Soto is quick to say that she "didn't win purely on my own merits." In a field of four candidates, Soto received more than half of the votes cast in the District 1 race, but she attributes the outcome to respect for her family.

"This isn't coming out of the blue. I have a pretty good idea what I'm getting into," said Soto. "I'm humbled and appreciative of the confidence people put in me with their votes. This is a very serious undertaking. I have a huge learning curve in front of me, and I'm fully aware of it."

Soto is eager to bring her passion for the environment to her job, and to tackle

other issues. "Crime is a persistent challenge, as is bringing in business," she said. "My first priority is to hold a town hall meeting with my constituents to establish a dialogue, whether they voted for me or not."

Soto would also like to beef up Pomona's neighborhood watch groups--"because the police can't always be there"--and she wants to streamline city processes to make them more "business friendly."

"The first step in anything, I think, is dialogue," said Soto, whose district includes part of downtown Pomona.

Soto said her UCSC education helped prepare her for a career in local politics. Classes in state and national environmental policy, as well as courses on water policy, land-use planning, and an internship in environmental interpretation that boosted her public-speaking skills, will come in handy, she said.

"I'm really proud to be taking my UC education with me," said Soto, who kept her candidacy under wraps as much as possible. "I'm kind of a private person, but I had to tell one instructor, because I had to miss a quiz to attend a community candidates forum," she recalled. "He looked at me like I was crazy." But he did excuse her absence.

Soto, 22, was one of six candidates under the age of 30 who ran for Pomona City Council. As she prepares to trade her jeans and hoodies for suits and heels, Soto said she feels honored to have been elected on the day the nation elected its first African American president.

"I saved my sample ballot, because Obama's name is on it, too," she said. "I do feel like I'm part of a historical moment. I'm very proud to be part of that in some small way."