By David M. Greenwald
It was a busy day for Governor Gavin Newsom as he filled the Senate seat vacated by Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris with Secretary of State Alex Padilla, becoming the first Latino US Senator to represent California. And that created a new vacancy at Secretary of State, which he filled with four-term Assemblymember Shirley Weber.
A former Los Angeles City Councilman and State Senator, Padilla has been elected twice statewide as California Secretary of State, becoming the first Latino to hold the office. Weber becomes the first Black to hold statewide office in California.
“The son of Mexican immigrants — a cook and house cleaner — Alex Padilla worked his way from humble beginnings to the halls of MIT, the Los Angeles City Council and the State Senate, and has become a national defender of voting rights as California’s Secretary of State. Now, he will serve in the halls of our nation’s Capitol as California’s next United States Senator, the first Latino to hold this office,” said Governor Newsom.
He said, “Through his tenacity, integrity, smarts and grit, California is gaining a tested fighter in their corner who will be a fierce ally in D.C., lifting up our state’s values and making sure we secure the critical resources to emerge stronger from this pandemic. He will be a Senator for all Californians.”
Padilla does not have a great track record on issues like criminal justice reform.
Kate Chatfield, the policy director for the criminal justice advocacy group the Justice Collaborative, for example, told the San Francisco Chronicle that choosing Padilla was a “wasted opportunity.”
Like others, “She had hoped Newsom would appoint Reps. Karen Bass of Los Angeles or Barbara Lee of Oakland. Both, she said, have been far more outspoken advocates for the most vulnerable Californians, such as people in prison and those who are homeless.”
Chatfield criticized Padilla, calling his biggest criminal justice bill in the Legislature a bill “to crack down on cell phones in prisons, and he voted against a measure to reduce the penalties for certain drug crimes, something voters did two years later.
“I don’t see that he’s super bold and, as our governor likes to say, meeting any moment, let alone this moment,” Chatfield said. “I have not heard a compelling argument that he’s going to fight for the vulnerable in California.”
Later on Twitter she added that she hoped he would prove her wrong.
By contrast, the pick of Assemblymember Shirley Weber excited the same people unenthusiastic about the Padilla selection.
Dr. Weber, who chaired the 2020 California Electoral College proceedings, has represented San Diego in the State Assembly since 2012 and was previously President of the San Diego Board of Education and a professor for 40 years.
Her bill, AB 392, was seminal legislation setting new and higher standards for the use of deadly force by the police and she has been an overall champion for civil rights and police reform.
She also passed first-in-the-nation legislation to provide transparency and accountability around the harmful and unjust practice of racial and identity profiling, while improving public safety and police-community relations.
“Dr. Weber is a tireless advocate and change agent with unimpeachable integrity,” said Governor Newsom. “The daughter of sharecroppers from Arkansas, Dr. Weber’s father didn’t get to vote until his 30s and her grandfather never got to vote because he died before the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
“When her family moved to South Central Los Angeles, she saw as a child her parents rearrange furniture in their living room to serve as a local polling site for multiple elections. Now, she’ll be at the helm of California’s elections as the next Secretary of State – defending and expanding the right to vote and serving as the first African American to be California’s Chief Elections Officer.”
She said, “I am excited to be nominated for this historical appointment as the Secretary of State of California. I thank Governor Newsom for the confidence and believing that I will stand strong for California. Becoming the first African American Woman in this position will be monumental, and I am up for the challenge. Being at the center of voting rights and laws that govern this state is a motivating factor in the work I will continue to do.”
The LA Times probably correctly noted: “The speedy decision by Newsom to announce the appointment on the same day he chose Padilla to fill the Senate seat of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris may reflect the intense pressure the governor faced by passing over several Black women for the job of representing California in the upper house of Congress.”
One thing you can say about both selections—they have remarkable stories.
As Governor Newsom’s press release explains, Weber was born on a 100-acre farm in rural Hope, Arkansas, where her father, David, was a sharecropper. Though he had a sixth-grade education and, according to Weber, could barely read, he instilled in Weber and her siblings a belief in the power of education.
The family fled the farm and moved across the country when Weber was just three because her father refused to back down in a dispute with a white farmer, and a lynch mob threatened his life.
Soon after the family moved to the Pueblo Del Rio housing projects in South Los Angeles in 1951, where Weber began school. She is a proud product of California public schools—district schools in Los Angeles through high school, and later at UCLA, where she earned three degrees, including her Ph.D., at only 26 years old.
As one of the few Black women in Southern California navigating academia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Weber ascended to become one of the youngest-ever professors at San Diego State University, where she helped found the Africana Studies Department.
Prior to being elected to the Assembly, Dr. Weber served as the mayor’s appointee and Chair on the Citizens Equal Opportunity Commission. She has also served on the Board of the NAACP, YWCA, YMCA Scholarship Committee, Battered Women Services, United Way, San Diego Consortium and Private Industry Council and others. She served as a member of the San Diego Board of Education from 1988 to 1996, including a stint as president.
Interestingly enough, Bill Clinton was born in Hope, Arkansas, in 1946. Weber in 1948.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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