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Update: A draft version of this story was earlier published by mistake. This story has been updated to include the correct version.
Once it became clear that Kamala Harris, previously one of California’s two senators, would assume the vice presidency, the waterfall effect began.
Somebody would need to fill her old role, and the role of the person who took on that role, and that person’s role and so on.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla to the Senate, he allowed us no time to process the news before appointing Assemblywoman Shirley Weber to Padilla’s former role later that day. The appointments were historic strides for representation: They became California’s first Latino U.S. senator and Black secretary of state.
Record numbers of women of color ran for office in 2020. In the 79th Assembly District – Weber’s now-vacant seat and home to the communities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove and parts of National City, Chula Vista and Bonita – four out of the five candidates that have announced their intent to run are not white.
California’s Black and Brown coalitions are both accustomed to fighting tooth and nail for political representation, but now they’ll have to learn how to campaign against each other.
The candidates agree on a lot of the big issues, but are divided on how to approach school reform, the roles of teachers unions and accountability in the pursuance of equitable and effective educational options.
“I remember in San Diego when you would be shocked to see a woman or a person of color run in a race, let alone have a whole host of individuals who have been underrepresented and are all good candidates,” 80th District Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said.
The first to announce an intention to run for the seat was La Mesa City Councilwoman Akilah Weber, a physician who is Shirley Weber’s daughter and who’s racked up early endorsements from the California Democratic Party and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins. She was followed by AFSCME District Council 36 representative Leticia Munguia, who has the support of Gonzalez and Nora Vargas, San Diego County’s first Latina supervisor.
Other candidates include Generation Justice founder Aeiramique Glass-Blake, California Teachers Association committee member Shane Parmely and business owner Marco Contreras, the Republican Party’s choice.
When former congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar announced he wouldn’t be running for the 79th District, he said it was because the seat should be held for a Black woman. He’s not the only one. La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent also opted not to run, citing similar reasoning.
“We only have seven black electeds left in the state Assembly, including six in the Assembly and one in the Senate,” California Democratic Party Black Caucus Chair Taisha Brown said. “Filling Dr. Weber’s seat is going to be very critical for the work that needs to be done for Black people in California.”
The 79th is among the most diverse districts in the state – racially and economically – with a population that is 33.5 percent White, 33.8 percent Latino, 10.9 percent Black and 18.9 percent Asian. Its residents span the spectrum from rich to poor, but are politically left-leaning: 44.7 percent are registered Democrats, 22 percent are Republican and 26.9 percent have no party preference.
Black people make up a notably smaller percentage of the population than Latinos in most California districts (the state’s population is 39 percent Latino versus 6 percent Black). Akilah Weber said that fact is often used to predetermine the race of the person who should be elected to a seat – a formula that she believes allows for minimal Black representation.
“I personally think Barack Obama was the best president we had in American history, and if we utilize that thinking then we would have never had him because he was a part of the minority,” she said.
The vice president-to-state Assembly cascade of promotions plays a role, too.
“There’s been a lot of racial tension in the Black and Brown space because there were other people that decided because Dr. Weber – a Black woman – is going to be the new secretary of state, they were going to find a Latino to run against Akilah,” Brown said, referring to Munguia.
Beyond the question of race, most people involved with the special election agree the next representative needs to be able to pick up where Shirley Weber left off.
That group includes Ellen Nash, chair of the San Diego chapter of the Black American Political Association of California.
“Any candidate who runs for this office – her daughter or any other candidate – you have got to embrace the standards that Dr. Weber has established. Period,” Nash said. “We’re going to hold you to the same standards or even higher than Dr. Weber, nothing less.”
That’s a high bar. During Weber’s confirmation for the secretary of state gig, not one Republican voted against her despite her staunch track record of fighting for controversial stances, such as reforming the standards for use of force in police departments. (Several Republican senators elected to register a “did not vote” – an acknowledgment that they disagreed with her politics but a move that’s considered more respectful than an outright vote against her.)
Akilah Weber has taken up many of the same stances, and has a similar reputation for being well-liked in the community on all ends of the political spectrum (she received an endorsement and high regards from La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, a longtime Republican who recently became a registered Democrat).
Though her mother’s name recognition is sure to give her a boost in the race (especially during a special election when residents are less prepared to vote and campaigns are working within a crunched timeline) it also carries weight in a different way. Shirley Weber has developed a reputation for being a thorn in the side of teachers unions after she pushed school accountability efforts and refused to denounce charter schools. Akilah Weber said she supports charters too.
“I am not against any kind of school,” Akilah Weber said. “Charter schools are public schools. So I am not against any school that’s showing progress.”
Charter schools – or public schools that operate independently from school districts – are mostly non-union, and have become a big target of powerful teachers unions such as the California Teachers Association in recent years. State data shows roughly 10 percent of California students are enrolled in charters.
Then there’s the question of school performance. A 2014 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows low-income Hispanic students and Black kids of all income levels in California’s charter schools do better in reading and math than their district-taught counterparts. The same cannot be said for White and Asian students.
Pro-union Democrats are looking for a candidate who will take a hard stance against charters. Shirley Weber was not that person, and Akilah Weber isn’t likely to be either.
“I went up against the teachers union because I am an advocate for quality education and I am not easily manipulated against charters,” Shirley Weber said, adding that she supports any kind of school that is performing well.
On the other hand, Munguia has been pro-labor since Day One (she was hired by the California School Employees Association on the same day she took the bar in 2004 and hasn’t turned back). She has never held legislative office, but has been influential behind the scenes, Gonzalez said in her recent endorsement.
“The fact that for the last 15 years we’ve been fighting to secure additional resources from the state for public education is something that I truly believe,” Munguia said. “I’ve seen through my lifetime that education opens doors.”
Then there’s Shane Parmely, who has been a San Diego Unified teacher for 20 years, sits on the California Teachers Association State Council and is the only gender non-binary candidate in the race. She is a grassroots organizer in local teaching and social justice circles with a staunch focus on helping Californians fulfill basic needs such as food and housing.
Parmely considers herself a fan of “alternative education,” but said she thinks California’s charter school system is in desperate need of reform.
“The unintended consequences of charter schools are hugely negatively impacting public education and the budgets of public school districts,” she said.
Charter schools are not the only education issue that is looking like it will become central in this race. There is also the question of reopening schools, as legislators and school districts across the state are still trying to figure out how to safely get kids back in the classroom amid the pandemic.
That said, whoever fills this seat will not only have to be well versed in education topics – an issue Shirley Weber prioritized while serving the district – but also how to navigate policy through the lens of COVID-19.
The special election timeframe can also be quite unforgiving in terms of onboarding, as this person will be entering their role in the middle of the legislative year.
“There’s going to be no training period,” Nash said. “Either you know it or you don’t, and you’re going to get eaten up.”
Glass-Blake – a former candidate for the 51st Congressional District, social justice organizer and youth advocate – said she joined the race to push for justice and equity. She said labor unions’ political workings have consistently been disconnected from the needs of the Black community.
“I think people who are considered the outsiders of the establishment and labor come to me to hold folks accountable,” she said. Glass-Blake is running as a Democrat but said she considers herself an independent.
The sole Republican in the race, businessman Marco Contreras, said he wants to focus on three things throughout his campaign: reopening schools, reopening the economy and supporting law enforcement for safer neighborhoods. That latter issue would mark a significant departure from Weber, who pushed for major police reforms throughout her tenure, including landmark changes to the standards by which police can deploy deadly force and a law requiring police to collect data on who they stop to guard against racial profiling.
“I have been lucky enough to live the American Dream and the message that we have is we want our constituents to live their own American Dream,” said Contreras, who was born in San Diego but grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. “I feel like what changes society is a message more than policy. We do need policy, but we want to inspire people to dream.”
The primary is set for Tuesday, April 6. The top two vote-getters will move on to the general election on Tuesday, June 8. All voters in the 79th District will be mailed a ballot (click here to find out what district you’re in).
Corrections: An earlier version of this piece misstated Marco Contreras’ biography; he was born in San Diego and grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. An earlier version of this piece also misidentified Mark Arapostathis as a Republican. Arapostathis said he became a registered Democrat in December 2019.