By Alexa Oslowski
View the complete two-hour candidate forum here.
March 16, 2021 (La Mesa) - The five candidates looking to serve as the next 79th District Assembly member came together on February 24 to participate in a candidate forum hosted by Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis. The district includes La Mesa, Del Cerro, Lemon Grove, Otay Ranch and East Chula Vista.
The candidates are running to fill the vacancy left when formerly Assembly member Shirley Weber was appointed to serve as Secretary of State. The candidates include her daughter, Dr. Akilah Weber, a physician and La Mesa City Councilmember who is endorsed by the county Democrat Party. Marco Contreras, owner of a custom brokerage business, is the endorsed Republican. Other candidates include Democrats Shane Parmely, a teacher, labor organizer Leticia Munguia, and racial justice activist Aeiramique Glass Blake.
Early voting began on Monday, March 8, and the election is officially on April 6th. If no candidate wins the majority, the top two will go to another runoff on June 8.
Moving Through COVID-19 and the End of the Pandemic
As the country continues to make progress on vaccinating Americans, all five candidates agreed that California needs to prioritize reopening schools safely and should not mandate the vaccine.
“If someone chooses not to get it, then they definitely need to make sure they are continuing to mask and do social distancing and wear the face shield until we are completely out of this pandemic,” Dr. Akilah Weber said.
Aeiramique Glass Blake said in the forum that the country needs more education and reassurance to the American people so they feel comfortable going and receiving the vaccine.
“It’s an individual choice and I know that some might be some existing health concerns. The conversation needs to happen between the physician and the recipient of the vaccine,” Leticia Munguia said.
Earlier in the year, new strains of COVID-19 were found across the world and even in San Diego. Questions from healthcare professionals rose over how this would influence vaccine efficacy and testing. Cases across the United States and California soared in the winter of 2020 and 2021, with the state even reporting 50,000 new positive COVID cases in one day, reported by the LA Times.
“Check outside the United States and how it’s going in other countries. At some point, it’s not going to be a pandemic anymore, it will be an endemic within certain countries who are not doing a good job of handling it,” Shane Suzanne Parmely said.
Marco Contreras agreed he would not mandate the vaccine.
“I think it goes against the very foundations of our country. We’re a country of freedom and I think it’s up to the individual to choose,” Contreras said.
The topic of education included the candidates weighing in on charter, public and private schools and what choices bring the best opportunity for equity to the neighborhoods in the district. Moderator Scott Lewis also mentioned that Shirley Weber unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation to hold school districts more accountable for their spending of money meant for English language learners, foster youth and areas with higher rates of poverty.
“When we’re talking about accountability, what’s the definition? Is it that the individual child is making progress and making gains, or is it that we’re pitting these kids against each other in standardized testing, which is designed to make sure a third of students are always failing,” Parmely said.
Leticia Munguia stated strong support for public education and said the improvements made have been incredibly helpful, but it’s only one piece.
“Are there additional conversations that should happen about public education and making sure that resources are fully dedicated back to our classroom, with our teachers and our school workers and our students? Absolutely,” Munguia said.
Issues have arisen in the past over how certain schools and school districts spend the funding, and ultimately how that influences the quality of education for the students. Ultimately, the candidates supported the idea that parents should have a choice in where to send their kids, and have enough options to choose from.
Marco Contreras applauded Shirley Weber’s efforts to reform education and echoed the need to continue offering school choice. However, he drew pushback from the other candidates.
“School choice gives parents an option that simply wouldn’t exist without it...even the Heritage Foundation said education choice breaks the arbitrary link between the price of a home and the quality of the education,” Contreras said.
Glass Blake said that she does support school choice, but the conversation is more complex. Moving forward, she called for a more comprehensive outlook on education, including enabling the shutdown of unsuccessful charter schools so that money can be better spent helping students and their education.
“When you talk about equity versus equality, equity gives folks what they need and equality just gives you a blanket,” Glass Blake said.
“Whether it’s a traditional public school or a public charter school, as long as they are teaching their students well, treating their teachers well, and they’re showing academic improvement, I think that choice should be there,” Akilah Weber said.
A large part of Shirley Weber’s work in the Assembly was working on criminal justice reform. In her time as an Assemblywoman, she worked to pass legislation regarding police use of force. The candidates were asked to look ahead and evaluate whether that was enough, or if they will be doing more if elected.
Glass Blake said she would not accept the endorsement from police unions or monetary contributions from them. She stated in the forum she has also advocated for separating the police union from politics, so legislation is not “watered down” in order to get passed.
“We need to make sure we are reimagining what policing looks like - a guardian versus a warrior. We really need to look and see what that looks like when we reduce our communities from being overpoliced, but we also make sure we are reallocating resources to make sure we have counselors, we have rapid responders, we have actual programs and implementation that actually works and reduces harm,” Glass Blake said.
However, Republican Marco Contreras said San Diego Police don’t get enough credit for their work and said in the six hundred thousand to a million police stops in San Diego every year, the city has low police shooting numbers other big cities would “die for”.
“Only two to three percent of police stops are forceful interactions...I honestly think we’ve always done a great job at honoring our military and I think it’s time we honor our police officers. They’re doing a great job. San Diego is America’s safest big city, and I’m really thankful for that,” Contreras said.
Dr. Weber countered the statistic Conteras quoted, saying that that percentage should be zero.
“I would definitely work with them (police) on reform or any other issues that tap into their area, but I would not take their endorsement nor would I take their money,” Dr. Weber said. “Marco, what you quoted that two to three percent are forceful interactions and your death rate - any forceful interaction should not occur and anyone who died unjustly should not happen.”
The four Democrats separated themselves from Contreras, calling for various levels of reform, including Leticia Munguia’s comments on how drastically different neighborhoods are policed and how solutions need to be put into action.
“My recommendation is for our police departments to be successful, we need to be able to provide an abundance of resources...Let’s envision how we respond to calls. Not every single incident is there a need to have the full police department respond in a way they may not be equipped,” Munguia said.
Parmely shared her insight from growing up with a father who was a police officer, and how that has shown her the ways the city can improve its police departments.
“He was not qualified to do a lot of the victim interviews he had to do. We need specialized, trained people who went into psychology or they went into social services or they went into mental health to do a lot of the work that police are currently called in for,” Parmely said.
Each candidate had the opportunity at the end of the forum to issue their closing statements to the viewers. Scott Lewis also mentioned to the candidates that the 79th District is considered under parked (with no state parks) and asked the candidates how they will protect and advocate for the betterment of the communities. All five also verbalized their appreciation for the other candidates and the conversations they were able to have at the forum.
Dr. Weber addressed her utmost support for funding and protecting small businesses as well as for receiving and allocating support from the state government in Sacramento. She also advocated for safe returns to school, the importance of keeping families and the community healthy, and strengthening the country’s readiness if another pandemic arises in the future.
Shane Parmely stated her love for state and national parks and said the 79th has room to add these outdoor spaces to the district. She also called for more insight into why certain small businesses suffered more during the pandemic and going forward, working to ensure that new businesses can start up and continuing to move the economy forward successfully.
Leticia Munguia shared her support for building the future up to support everyone. She advocated for safe parks and safer communities. Munguia also shared the devastation she saw to small businesses during the pandemic, and how that has hurt local communities and lost local jobs and investments. She ended by saying this was the beginning of the conversation, and that the dialogue that was started at the forum is not complete.
Aeiramique Glass Blake called for better access to grocery stores [in disadvantaged communities] and parks. She also stressed the priority of pandemic recovery for small businesses. Glass Blake stated that the conversation about the economy needs to include discussions about workforce development for training and education, and called for policy changes that will benefit everyone in the community.
Marco Contreras shared his personal struggles in the past decade and how, after everything he went through, he believes the community is in need of more vision. Contreras said it’s important to have a combination of great funding, great policies, and a great vision for the district. If elected, he wants to create a plan where community outreach centers, churches and schools are included in the conversation to strengthen and establish a vision for the next generation and outline how those children are going to find their skillsets and execute their goals.