By JEFF CLEMETSON
Just two years into a four-year term as La Mesa’s first Black City Council member, Dr. Akilah Weber is moving on to represent the 79th State Assembly District — a seat vacated by her mother Shirley Weber, who took over as California’s Secretary of State after Alex Padilla was tapped to replace Vice President Kamala Harris as senator. Even in a crowded field of Democrats and one Republican, Weber handily won the special election for the Assembly seat on April 6 with 52.4% of the vote, giving her the seat outright without having to go to a runoff between the top two candidates.
Now-Assembly member Weber — who was sworn in on April 19 — said she is excited to serve in her new role, but she was conflicted on whether to run in the first place and leave her seat on the City Council.
“I though long, long, long, long, long, long and hard about running for this seat because there is a lot that still needs to be done on the Council,” she said, citing the city’s search for a new police chief and the allocation funds federal relief funds as two issues she wanted to have input on.
“Then on the professional side, I’m a physician, work at UCSD. I can no longer be employed by UCSD because it is a state school, state hospital and I’m in the Assembly now,” she added.
Ultimately, she said her decision to run for her mother’s seat was for three reasons: she saw the value of having state representatives with local government experience; she could carry on her mother’s legacy of governing with compassion, empathy and bipartisanship; and her professional expertise as a physician is needed to address the “social determinants of health” in issues such as education, environmental justice, healthcare access and jobs.
“When I look at these issues, I look at them from a health standpoint and it’s important that we have more people do that,” she said and pointed out that currently there is only one other physician in the Assembly and another in Senate who is terming out. “So we need more people that have this experience in Sacramento making these decisions.”
Another reason Weber gave for running for the Assembly is that she was raised by parents who instilled in her the importance of service.
“And this is just my next call to serve,” she said.
In her previous call to serve on the La Mesa City Council, Weber said she came to office during a time of change for the city.
“I tell people that the City Council that you see today is very different today than what you’d have seen four years ago,” she said. “Our perceptions, our focus is different; and it’s not just one person who’s changed, it’s pretty much the entire council who’s changed the focus and been much more open.”
Weber pointed out that one of the issues she ran on for the council seat was transparency and that the city has made progress on inclusion in her time on the council.
“That’s something that we worked on — something that’s critical whether it’s local or state or national, making sure that the people know what’s going on and that you are including them in the decisions that are being made,” she said. “I didn’t see a lot of that before I got on the council but everyone now recognizes the importance of transparency, the importance of communication.”
Weber pointed to the city recently deciding to hire a communication specialist and an increase in residents volunteering for city boards and commissions as evidence that the push for transparency was successful.
Inversely, Weber sees the moments when the council did not consider the needs of residents when taking action or making policy as the times she was “most disappointed.”
“When we did the ADU vote, which was early in me joining the council, I was disappointed in that vote — not because I didn’t want the ADU ordinance to be updated, because it should have been updated,” she explained. “I was disappointed because it was done behind closed doors without engaging the residents about the rationale behind that decision and when the residents came to speak it seemed as if their voices weren’t being heard.”
Another disappointment for Weber was the vote on where to spend CARES Act funds.
“We chose not to give as much money to the rental assistance program as we could have initially,” she said. “I was very disappointed in that vote because I feel that everyone should be valued in La Mesa — our businesses and our residents.”
Weber said the most disappointing event during her time on the City Council was the riots that followed protests of a local police officer filmed harassing a young Black man in La Mesa that coincided with the national protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“That was hard. That was a very, very challenging time, and it was for everyone in La Mesa,” Weber said. “I remember when it was happening, my boys were watching the buildings burning on TV and I remember how afraid we were that night. I had them sleeping in my room. It was hard and there was a feeling of helplessness that I had because we were calling everyone for backup help to protect our businesses and we weren’t getting any help.
“I was also sad because we didn’t have to [be] there,” she continued. “The reason why it came to La Mesa should have never happened in the first place. And had people listened to the residents about improving relationships with the police department, about dealing with rouge cops then we would have never had that situation in the first place. And if we as a city had done a better job in initially responding to that situation, I don’t think we would have had the protest come to our city.”
Weber said she took solace in watching the way La Mesa came together the next day to help businesses, clean the city and fix buildings.
“We were able to show everyone and reaffirm ourselves that La Mesa is more than [the riots],” she said. “That was definitely a low point, but in many ways we were able to turn some of that around.”
Part of turning it around was the creation of the Community Police Oversight Board — an action Weber said was her “most important vote.”
“That’s something that was definitely needed, something that the community has been asking for since before 2015 and the council and the staff and the mayor had kind of ignored those calls,” she said. “So to be able to in the first two years of me getting on the council get the task force and then the oversight board established, I think is monumental. And it has a lot to do with working with the residents, working with the community groups to really help change the minds of some of the people on the council.”
Another change in La Mesa that Weber points to as progress she helped facilitate is the city’s approach to homelessness.
“I used to feel that La Mesa would think that homelessness was a problem in every other city but La Mesa and so they didn’t have anything specific about La Mesa. We talk about East County Homeless Task Force or San Diego County Task Force, but nothing specific for La Mesa,” she said. “So for us to have gone from that kind of perception to not only creating a task force specifically for La Mesa but then to create a homeless action plan and on top of that our new program with PATH is amazing. It’s kind of a 180 in the approach that we have now with dealing with the most vulnerable in our population.
“I think we are now an example for other cities that may have not been doing as much as they should, to say that it doesn’t take years to change, it only takes will for people to do it and you can do it pretty quickly,” she added.
The ability to do things quickly is particularly important to Weber right now in her transition to the Assembly, which is why she sees her unique situation of stepping into her mother’s seat as an advantage.
“Less than two weeks ago was the election and Monday I’m being inaugurated and I got to get a staff together, this and that,” she said. “So to know who I already want because I know people, I’ve worked with them before that is definitely a benefit.”
But there are also disadvantages for Weber, the daughter of the now-Secretary of State.
“Some of the downside is there are a lot of expectations,” she said. “Everyone talks about how when my mother speaks on the floor everyone would stop, not only on the floor but people in the offices. On the campaign trail, there was a lot of questions like ‘Is she going to be a strong with social justice reform?’ – those kind of things. So there’s always that natural comparison there.”
At her final meeting as a member of the La Mesa City Council, Mayor Arapostathis and her fellow council members joked with Weber that she was going to forget them.
“There’s no way I can forget about La Mesa, I still live in La Mesa, my kids still go to school in La Mesa, I’m still a La Mesan. And I would not be where I am today if it were not for the residents of La Mesa. I would not have won City Council and I would not have won the Assembly, so I am forever grateful, forever indebted to my home,” she said. “And I will still work with city to make sure that La Mesa is getting everything from the state level that it needs to thrive.”
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.