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When Akilah Weber sailed to the California Assembly without a runoff in April’s special election, filling the vacancy left by her mother in the 79th District, she followed a familiar script.
She had secured a seat on the La Mesa City Council three years earlier with promises to solidify improvements to public safety, promote health and wellness and find solutions to housing unaffordability and homelessness. Sprinkle in discussions of climate and education reform with a dose of pandemic recovery and you have Weber’s 2021 campaign priorities.
A lot happened between 2018 and 2021. La Mesa, previously governed by a Council of mostly conservative lawyers, underwent a progressive wave of its own. A viral incident of police brutality last June provoked protests and riots, forcing the city to grapple with its racist past. And then there was the deadly pandemic that has held citizens and public officials hostage for the past year.
Weber wasn’t the only one having those hard conversations. She’s going to help lead the state after helping lead a city of about 60,000 that became a microcosm of issues playing out across the nation during the Trump administration, making topics such as police reform almost impossible to avoid.
The biggest change in La Mesa, and what Weber said she takes credit for, took the form of a culture shift at city hall.
“You have to have a legislative body that is willing to listen and act based on the asks of the community, and in the past there was that schism,” Weber said. “The community was saying one thing and what was happening in the city and on the Council was completely different.”
Akilah Weber’s collaborative style of politicking at the local level follows in the footsteps of her mother, now Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who’s widely regarded for her ability to be receptive to those on both sides of the aisle. But her mother left big shoes to fill, and Akilah Weber’s campaign promises present no small feat. As she transitions into her new role in Sacramento, the pressure will be on for her to deliver.
Police Tensions Boil Over
Shortly after outrage over the death of George Floyd erupted nationally, a viral video from a La Mesa trolley station showed then-La Mesa Police officer Matthew Dages using force to detain Amaurie Johnson, a 23-year-old Black man. Dages now faces a felony charge for filing a false police report.
The ensuing protest was one for the books: Demonstrators shut down I-8, rioters burned two banks to the ground, looters struck a local grocery store and police officers deployed tear gas and fired bean bag rounds that left some protestors in critical condition. When things turned violent, the City Council held a late-night meeting to announce a citywide curfew.
The events of May 30 and 31, 2020, were a turning point for La Mesa.
“After the riots that happened, it really opened the eyes of some of the members on the Council and the mayor to say that this is not something that you can continue to brush under the rug,” Weber said.
A recent after-action report conducted by an independent consulting firm concluded La Mesa was ill-prepared for the events of that night. The report said city and police officials struggled to maintain communication when things turned violent, and the police department lacked a proper plan and updated policies to address the large crowd.
The protest wasn’t the first time La Mesa’s police practices had been thrust into the public eye. In January 2018, a viral video showed a local cop throwing a teenage girl to the ground twice during an arrest at Helix Charter High School. The involved officer was allowed to return to work after an independent investigation concluded he didn’t use excessive force, and the city lost $130,000 in a settlement agreement with the student.
The situation stimulated discussions about establishing a police oversight board, but things moved slowly. In September 2019, the Council approved a task force to explore the best options for civilian oversight, but it wasn’t until October 2020 that the Council voted 3-2 to approve the new Community Police Oversight Board.
“I was able to convince enough of our Council members that it is something that we need and something that the residents have been asking for,” said Weber, who was elected to the Council in 2018. “To get them to vote to pass it was really incredible, because it has been resisted for such a very long time.”
The board is tasked with making recommendations to the police department regarding policies and procedures, as well as working with an independent auditor to investigate officer misconduct, according to the city’s website.
But Weber wasn’t the only candidate vying for the 79th District seat who’s helped solidify La Mesa’s police accountability efforts. Generation Justice founder Aeiramique Glass-Blake was one of the loudest voices calling for accountability after the incident at Helix Charter High School, and led a protest on campus.
She also advised former Chief of Police Walt Vasquez early on regarding how the department could improve. Vasquez retired last August and the city is in the midst of finding a new, permanent police chief – a process Weber said she is regretful she will no longer be a part of.
“We really led the way for a lot of the reforms taking place in La Mesa with regards to police oversight,” Glass-Blake said, referring to herself and other community organizers.
La Mesa’s Blue Wave
In 2020, the La Mesa City Council passed a public smoking ban and police reform was brought to the forefront. In the same year, the city’s new Citizen Task Force on Homelessness implemented a program that sends mental health professionals to aid during non-emergency calls, connecting houseless individuals to city services and housing opportunities.
“It’s been like night and day,” Weber said.
Akilah entered the Council in the midst of a progressive wave for the East County suburb, not unlike the “blue wave” that struck Congress during the 2018 midterm elections.
Local elections are generally nonpartisan, but endorsements of successful City Council candidates indicate a progressive shift. Councilman Colin Parent was the only outspoken progressive on the Council, out of five members, when he got elected in 2016.
Weber, elected in 2018, and environmentalist Jack Shu, elected in 2020, helped transform the Council, which now has no registered Republicans. La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis – a longtime Republican – re-registered as a Democrat in December 2019, and conservative Councilman Bill Baber told Times of San Diego in February he re-registered under the Common Sense Party due to his qualms with the Trump administration.
La Mesa itself hasn’t had more registered Republicans than Democrats since 2008, when the makeup was about equal.
“We really created a different standard for what residents should expect from their elected leaders,” Weber said. “They expect communication. They expect the ability to participate. They expect to be heard. That in itself has caused a culture change.”
A Special Election Cut Short
Weber’s win in the special election was not unexpected – between her track record on important issues, name recognition and campaign funding – but her success in the primary was borderline unprecedented.
The top two vote-getters on April 6 were slated to proceed to a runoff election in June. But that was averted entirely when Weber – a gynecologist and mother of two – reeled in 51.97 percent of the vote.
“People were extremely happy and I think the numbers showed that,” said California Democratic Party Black Caucus Chair Taisha Brown, “and that’s why we’re not in the runoff.”
From the start of the year to March 20, Weber’s campaign garnered $307,865 in contributions, mostly from medical groups and state Democrats. The next-best-funded candidate, Republican businessman Marco Contreras, raked in $129,232 in the same period and came in second with 33.44 percent of the vote.
In the brief four months of the election, Weber got a taste of the challenges likely to follow her to Sacramento.
For one, there’s no avoiding the power of legacy as the daughter of one of California’s top Democrats, who also happens to be her predecessor.
Shirley Weber was re-elected to her Assembly post four times since 2012, and usually by a comfortable margin. She also benefits from rare bipartisan support: Weber breezed into the secretary of state position in January without a single Republican voting against her (they instead held their votes in a display of respect).
Her mother’s popularity mostly played to Akilah Weber’s benefit, but it also had its drawbacks.
Shortly before the primary, the California Coalition of Law Enforcement Associations (backing Leticia Munguia, who finished a distant third) distributed a mailer with an image of Akilah Weber superimposed over photos of the riots in La Mesa last year. “Akilah Weber didn’t support our local businesses when they needed her most,” the mailer read.
Police unions made an enemy of her mother when she initially pursued legislation altering the standards for police use of deadly force, but they eventually dropped their opposition to the effort once Shirley Weber agreed to compromises. They even ended up donating to her re-election campaign, in a remarkable relationship turnaround. Akilah Weber also told Voice of San Diego in February that she wouldn’t accept donations or endorsements from police unions.
“I told my daughter, ‘Understand this, you are going to inherit all of my friends and all of my enemies,’” Shirley Weber said. “Let’s hope that my enemies are a smaller group than my friends.”
An Untimely Arrival in Sacramento
Weber was sworn into the Assembly on April 19 at her swearing in, months after freshmen Assembly members elected in 2020 took their seats. She missed the Feb. 19 deadline to introduce new bills of her own, but she’s still making moves.
“I’m co-authoring a bill that looks into giving money and resources to cities to basically do what La Mesa is doing, where when you get these calls for mental health issues or homeless issues and it’s a nonviolent thing, that the police don’t go out,” Weber said.
Weber has also signed on as a co-author of a bill to establish a new state task force to study the COVID-19 pandemic and develop strategies to navigate future pandemics.
Weber said she plans to push legislation that will promote better maternal outcomes. Those efforts may include improvements to transitional kindergarten and childcare, making sure those offerings are accessible and affordable.
Weber said she’s also keeping a close eye on police accountability measures, and is pushing to get funds for community organizations that provide housing and services to individuals recently released from state jails.
“I look forward to sitting down and really working with everyone,” Weber said. “How those relationships will play out in the future, I’m not sure. But I’m very hopeful that, at a minimum, we will have respect for each other and will be able to come together on some issues.”