How Their Histories Shaped 79th Assembly District Candidates Mary England, Dr. Shirley Weber
Story and photos by Mark Gabrish Conlan
October 12, 2012 (San Diego's East County)--Throughout their adult lives, Republican Mary England has been a businesswoman and Dr. Shirley Weber, a Democrat, has been a teacher. That’s the most important thing you need to know about the two rival candidates for California State Assembly from the newly created 79th District.
Throughout their interviews for East County Magazine, they kept coming back to their professional backgrounds and how those shaped not only their private lives but also their public ones. On just about every issue, including how to balance Californians’ desires for government programs with their limited willingness to pay for them in taxes, their fundamentally different life histories shape their views.
“I worked for Pacific Bell — now part of AT&T — for 30 years and retired in 1994,” England said. “In 1993 I pulled a business license and decided I wanted to start my own company. At Pacific Bell I did all the corporate parties. I worked in various locations — San Francisco, Colma, Daly City, Watsonville, Monterey — and when Pacific Bell decided to start selling phones at retail outlets, we created a line of designer phones and went into malls like a clothing store.” In an era when the land-line telephone has not only been supplemented but largely replaced by the cell phone and the biggest name you’re likely to see selling phones at a mall store is Apple, this may seem a quaint achievement, but England is proud of it because it put her in the direct salesperson-to-customer market for the first time and helped her hone the interpersonal skills that have served her as a politician.
Shortly after retiring from Pacific Bell and starting her own marketing and public relations business, England joined the Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce, then got elected to its board and ended up as its president. Later on she was hired as president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, a position she holds today, and she’s been on the Lemon Grove City Council for 12 years. Why did she enter elective politics? “Being the Chamber president, I saw there was so much in city government that affected business,” she explained. She said that when Lemon Grove incorporated as a city in 1977, it got stuck with many laws from its period before as an unincorporated area run directly by the County, including an ordinance regulating business signs, that she felt needed to be reformed and brought into the 21st century.
“Most folks know me as an educator,” said Dr. Weber. “I’ve been at San Diego State University (SDSU) since 1972, and I was brought here initially to assist the development of the Africana Studies major. I’ve also worked with Chicano and women’s studies and have an associate faculty appointment in those two departments.” Her baptism of fire in electoral politics came when she was elected to the board of the San Diego Unified School District in 1988. She served for two terms, working with superintendents Tom Payzant and Bertha Pendleton. “We balanced our budgets, developed the Business Roundtable, and increased the level of student achievement.”
Where England emphasized the business-oriented aspects of her community service record, Weber cited a list of community and advocacy organizations she’s been involved in: the NAACP (as vice-president of the San Diego chapter), Planned Parenthood, the YMCA and YWCA. The part of her record she’s proudest of is her appointment by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders to chair the Citizens’ Equal Opportunity Commission (CEOC). The commission’s jobs are to increase the number of San Diego city contracts going to locally owned small businesses and improve the representation of “competent historically under-represented [people], women and disabled citizens” among the city’s workers and contractors. (The language is from the Commission’s Web site, www.sandiegoceoc.org.)
And where England’s pet peeve is government regulators making policies for businesses when they’ve never actually run one, Weber’s is state legislators making and enforcing student requirements and other policies on public universities when they’ve never worked in the educational sector. “There are a lot of things at the state level regarding retention of students, what kinds of units students should take,” Weber explained. “There’s this effort to change what students need to know to get students out faster. Well, you can’t require more general-education levels of students who come in on an A.A. [a community-college degree]. … People who don’t understand what a university is are making policies we have to live with.” She’s particularly upset at the push from the state to get rid of requirements that students study foreign languages when “the world is getting smaller and we should want our students to learn more languages, not fewer.”
Paying for Government
One of the difficulties facing people at any level of government, especially in California, is the gap between what Californians want their government to provide in services and what they’re willing to pay for it in taxes. It’s not surprising, not only given their different party affiliations but their different professional backgrounds, that England and Weber have very different ideas and responses to questions about taxes. England was one of a three-vote majority on the Lemon Grove City Council who refused to put a sales-tax increase before the voters. Her Council colleague ,George Gastil, told East County Magazine that he didn’t think the extra sales taxes would decisively impact Lemon Grove businesses — especially since a lot of Lemon Grove residents do much of their shopping in La Mesa, where a similar tax increase was put before voters and approved.
Weber agreed with Gastil that the Lemon Grove City Council majority’s decision to keep the sales tax initiative off the ballot was fundamentally undemocratic. “People have the right to assess themselves,” she said. “When I was on the school board we put two bond measures on the ballot and designed and promoted them so people could see what they were going to get. We even convinced the whole city of San Diego to pay for new schools south of I-8 on the ground that their educational success would affect the lives of all San Diegans. I was able to go to Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch and Point Loma and say, ‘These are our children, and we have an obligation to support them.’ We went out and also incorporated the business community. I believe the community has the right to decide. I don’t want a small group of people deciding not to tax anybody. I don’t like paying taxes either, but when communities assess themselves and see the results, they’re reasonable with it.”
England said the reason she voted against putting the sales tax increase on the ballot in Lemon Grove was that “the number of signatures needed did not happen. The business community, including our large car dealerships, was totally against it. They came out in force during our City Council meeting. DCH Honda and other car dealerships said a tax increase would kill them. That is democratic. That is what we get elected to do. We’re elected to make informed decisions based on what people want. Lemon Grove’s eggs are in one basket: our largest income source is car dealerships. I always believe taxes should be raised as a last resort, not the first resort. California is the second worst state for taxes, and our corporate tax rate is the nation’s highest.” Yet, like Weber, England also led a campaign to push through a bond measure to modernize the schools in her area; in November 1998 she shepherded the campaign that got 81 percent of Lemon Grove School District voters to approve the bond proposal.
Asked if she would support Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s initiative on the November 6 ballot for a package of temporary state income and sales tax increases to bolster the general fund, England said, “More money versus cutting bloated Sacramento government is not the way to go. They found the multi-million dollar park funds after threatening to close state parks and after people and businesses started raising money to keep them open. People have called for audits of the state’s special funds. I don’t think any legislator knows where the special funds are. We need to take a full look at everything we’re spending. I want to see what the audit turns up.”
“Proposition 30 is asking Californians to give more for what they say they want, which is education, and people are cynical,” said Weber. “I hope if Proposition 30 passes, we’ll be able to bring in people from the California Finance Department so there’s honesty and clarity in how the money is spent. When I was on the school board we cut a lot of money from the budget.” Weber recalled one school board meeting where, after they voted on the budget, a woman in the audience said, “I totally disagree with what you just did, but I can’t say I could have done it better.” Make sure the people understand the budget process, Weber said, and they become more “realistic” about what they can expect government to do with the resources it has.
Education and Regulation
It’s not surprising that England is more enthusiastic than Weber about charter schools, private schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. She hinted she’d be willing to consider a voucher program to divert public tax dollars to private schools and let public and private schools compete for students. England pointed out that Weber sent her own son to private school “because she felt public schools aren’t always the way,” and added, “People should have the right to choose.” Both candidates favor involving the business community directly in education, and Weber volunteered that one program she pursued as a school board member of which she’s particularly proud was bringing business leaders together with the school board so the San Diego schools train students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
“I’ve been involved in ‘school reform’ for years and I’m not sure reform has occurred,” Weber said. “They’re trying to respond to legitimate concerns about quality. Testing is one of many variables but it can’t be the only way you evaluate student or school performance. ‘Teaching to the test’ won’t give you students with critical thinking skills. One of the greatest challenges is discovering a system of assessing how students are doing. Some of that can be measured with tests, but some can’t. You can know the multiplication tables but not know what multiplication means.” As a legislator, Weber said, the best thing she could do for education is “give whatever pieces of legislation a perspective that’s missing and make sure those in the educational system are involved in developing these laws.”
“I don’t know how you get away from test scores to measure student achievement,” England said. “That’s how I was measured. The education system needs to address that students learn differently. Some teachers have an innovative way of training students. These teachers are reinventing themselves and realizing they have to be innovative. Some use music to make things more interesting. California ranks 48th in math and 49th in reading. That’s a systemic problem, and teachers need to become part of the solution, not part of the problem.” As for involving businesses in directly training students, England said, “If we want this to happen, we need to take regulatory burdens off businesses. Auto shop and woodworking have been taken out of the curriculum, and we’ve got to provide an avenue for the people who aren’t going to college.”
England has made loosening regulations on business a theme of her campaign. Her website says one of the things she’ll do in the Assembly is “work to repeal regulations that push businesses out of state, leaving Californians unemployed.” Asked exactly what regulations she would target, she gave an example: AB 47, introduced by Assemblymember Tony Mendoza and signed into law by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The purpose of the bill was to require restaurants to reduce their customers’ exposure to trans fats by requiring them to use ingredients lower in trans-fat content. According to England, what this did to Teresa Johnson, co-owner of the famous Grove Pastry Shop in Lemon Grove, was force her to switch to an inferior ingredient that costs her more, has a shorter shelf life, produces a less tasty version of her whipped-cream cakes and has made her raise her prices, upsetting her customers and threatening her business. “That’s an example of a law that was not well thought out,” England explained.
“I want to keep jobs in California,” England said. “I want to stop the mass exodus of businesses to Texas and Nevada. Assemblymember Brian Jones has gone to Texas to see what they are doing to attract California businesses. I want to see what we can do to get on a level playing field with other states. In May 2012 there was a survey of 650 CEO’s nationwide that ranked California ‘the worst state in which to do business’ for eight years in a row. [The survey is available online at http://chiefexecutive.net/best-worst-states-for-business-2012.] I think that says it all. There are other CEO’s who say they will open anywhere but in California because the cost is prohibitive. Kentucky Fried Chicken will never open another store in California. Having the highest state sales tax doesn’t help either, and California’s corporate income tax, 8.84 percent, is the highest west of the Mississippi except in Alaska.”
While England sees California’s business climate as a statewide problem — indeed, this normally self-contained person came close to tears when she talked about the chiefexecutive.net survey and what it’s repeatedly had to say about her native state — Weber pointed to what she’s done locally, especially with the Citizens’ Equal Opportunity Commission, to improve relations between business and government.
In San Diego we developed a small business initiative on how to work for the city, and engaged them,” Weber said. “We asked them what the problems were, and often they were reasonable things. It’s all these hoops and obstacles.” Weber doesn’t think California needs to make sweeping changes in the ways it regulates businesses; sometimes, she said, merely working with them to simplify the process by which the regulations are enforced will help keep them in the state.
One of the well-intentioned laws frequently cited as an example of overregulation in this state — and one Weber volunteered to talk about — is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Signed into law in 1970 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, CEQA does not directly regulate land uses, but instead requires state and local agencies within California to follow a protocol of analysis and public disclosure of environmental impacts of proposed projects and adopt all feasible measures to mitigate those impacts; CEQA makes environmental protection a mandatory part of every California state and local agency’s decision-making process. It has also become the basis for numerous lawsuits concerning public and private projects.
Weber explained that the State Senate is currently holding hearings on CEQA and she’s looking forward to their recommendations. “It’s an important act that should not be tossed out,” she said. “Some people say there’s overregulation; and some people say there’s not enough regulation. I often go in areas in my community and Latino leaders say they’re fighting environmentalists to get a K-Mart into a lot that right now is just a haven for drug dealers. You often hear about those ‘environmentalists,’ and the environmentalists say we need greater involvement in green technologies and what we need to do to bring green energy to communities of color.”
England said, “I haven’t looked at all the issues [on CEQA] to see how much of it is overkill and how much should be remain.” She added, “It’s an 800-pound elephant in the room. I deal with it as a City Councilmember, as a law with which we have to comply. I’m open to looking at anything on the books. In your life you have to reinvent yourself, and that’s true of government as well. In 1977 Lemon Grove became a city, and a lot of the ordinances on our books got passed down from the County, which had governed us as an unincorporated area before that. We’ve constantly looked at things that were relevant in the 1970s but not in 2012. When your consumers’ needs change, your regulations have to adapt.”
Both candidates were asked about whether California should continue to encourage renewable energy — and if so, whether the best way to develop it is building mega-projects in the desert that create solar and wind energy for distribution by traditional big utilities or helping individuals become more energy self-sufficient.
“I’m not familiar with that particular issue,” Weber said. “We often get concerns over whether enough is being done in the 79th Assembly District. There’s not much going on to reach communities who don’t believe they have the resources [to invest in individual renewable energy].” She cited a recent renewable-energy bill in the legislature that “was designed to work with large apartment complexes,” but the State Senate killed it.”
She added, “You have to have some level of incentives” to get people to invest in individual solar panels and other home-based renewable…School District Proposition Z is partly to fund putting solar panels on schools, and some folks are beginning to understand it could be beneficial. It’s an investment a lot of people can’t afford, especially people struggling to avoid foreclosure. It is an expense. It’s like the information superhighway; the poorer communities were the last to get on it.”
Asked the same question, England said the state should encourage renewables, “but I don’t want to waste millions of dollars on it. I want to make sure it’s efficient, inexpensive and we balance the options. If we can’t compete globally, we shouldn’t be in that business.” Like Weber, she’s concerned about whether people can afford the initial cost of installing solar even though it will save them money in the long run. England is also proud of Lemon Grove’s record on renewable energy, not only working with private developers to make their projects “as green as possible,” but designing the city’s own buildings to use renewable energy. She cited a project in the downtown corridor which will include two windmills, not only as decorations but to turn generators that will power the lights in Lemon Grove’s trolley station.
Parties and Philosophies
Given her involvement in Planned Parenthood and her recent endorsement by the San Diego Democrats for Equality — a predominantly LGBT organization that supports only pro-choice, pro-LGBT equality candidates — there’s no surprise where Weber stands on reproductive choice and same-sex marriage equality.
England says she’s “definitely against any public funds being used for voluntary abortions,” but she seems to define “voluntary” as not including abortions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life or health of the mother. As for marriage equality, England said, “You have to listen to the people. Right now the people in California define marriage as between a man and a woman. If the people change their minds, I would support that outcome as well.”
Though the list of endorsers on England’s Web site is overwhelmingly Republican, she cited a few Democrats who are supporting her as well. Among them are Lemon Grove Mayor Mary Theresa Sessom, Chula Vista realtor Bill Stanhope, developer Ginjer Hitzke, retired educator Bruce Duncan Ross and Chula Vista resident Darwin Lutie. Asked how she’ll function as a legislator in what is likely to be the minority party, England said, “Being a member of the minority party doesn’t mean I have to back away from principles. The current majority party will have to realize that those of us in the minority party were elected by millions of people. This new district alone has 499,000 people, and they need to hear what we have to say.”
Asked how she would define the difference in philosophy between the Republican and Democratic parties, England said, “The Republican Party believes in smaller government and reasonable taxes. The Democratic Party believes in large government, high spending and high taxes. There is definitely a difference between the two parties.” But she also cited “a huge, growing group of independents” including Assemblymember and former San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher, who left the Republican Party in the middle of his campaign and re-registered non-partisan. “There are businesses, including Ace Parking, who have put together a ‘Man in the Middle’ campaign, not Republicans, not Democrats, but people who believe they need to be involved in politics to support problem-solvers. People are disenchanted with parties and want to vote for the person, not the party.”
By contrast, Weber observed, “I think the Democratic Party has been viewed as the party of the everyperson.” She added, “It often steps out and tries to create a government that helps families and children, especially those who can’t help themselves. We all have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but we believe if people don’t have boots we should give them boots. The Democratic Party is a party of individual responsibility, but we believe if you cannot work, society should help you. We also believe in a basic right to health care, including prevention, not just for the elite but for everybody. … The Democratic Party is not always the saint in the room, but we have greater racial and ethnic diversity, greater involvement of women, and greater diversity of thought. You didn’t hear much discussion of diversity, equality, women’s right to choose, pensions, or the right to work at living wages at the Republican convention.”
Summing up, England said, “I think legislators on both sides of the aisle have to get spending under control. We have cities going bankrupt. We don’t want to have the state go bankrupt. We need to run government like a business. We need to get Californians working again. There’s been talk about making the legislature part-time, which would cut some expenses. I’d love to see California not ranked so badly by the top CEOs. I’d want to see us ranked the best state to do business. I’d love to see that happen because that would mean we’re successful. It would mean we want to work with businesses. The current system isn’t working. The Democrats have had control of the legislature for too long and allowed too many problems to fester. Some kind of coalition has to come together to stop the mass exodus of businesses from California to other states.”
Weber concluded, “The unique thing about this race is that if I’m elected, I’ll be the first African-American to serve in the Assembly from any district south of Los Angeles — either San Diego, Orange or Imperial Counties. I mention that to people and they’re shocked. It’s a district that’s only 10 percent African-American, but it’s a diverse district. I’ve served the public for over 30 years and I’ve always been embraced by diverse districts.”
For more information, visit the candidates’ Web sites at:
Mary England: http://www.maryengland2012.com
Dr. Shirley Weber: http://weberforassembly.ngpvanhost.com/