(Analysis for East County Magazine)
By E.A. Barrera
May 31, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) -- With only days left in the 2012 primary season, no contest reflects the nature of modern California politics better then the race in the 79th Assembly District. The new California Primary system is in place this year, forcing all candidates of any party to run in what are now quasi-municipal elections. No single party may field a candidate for the fall, and the top two vote-getters of the primary-- no matter the party--will face each other in a run-off election this November.
In a district like the 79th, which has a two-to-one Democratic party registration edge over the Republicans, that means a near-certain Democratic victory in November. The district is 57 percent Latino, compared with 24 percent White and 8-percent African American. Of the six major candidates running for the race, three are Latino.
The six candidates running for the seat now currently held by Assemblyman Ben Hueso, who is termed out, are:
(Editor's Note: Neither Matt Mendoza nor Rudy Ramirez responded to information requests for this article)
From the start, the race has been Weber's to lose. When it comes to accomplishments attained in life, she is clearly a winner. Born to sharecroppers in Hope, Arkansas (the same town and time as former President Bill Clinton), Weber received her BA, MA and PhD from UCLA by the time she was 26. She has been an African American Studies professor at San Diego State for 30 years. In 1988 she was elected to the San Diego School Board. She currently serves as the Mayor’s appointee and Chair of the Citizens’ Equal Opportunity Commission.
“I’m running for Assembly to bring back the California of opportunity that so many of us grew up with," said Weber. "That's disappearing before our eyes. In Sacramento I will fight for great public schools, high-wage jobs and access to an excellent and affordable college education. As an Assembly member, I will continue to ensure that women and the issues that matter most to them are fully represented in our state government.”
Weber has been endorsed by every major Democratic office holder, Democratic club, and labor organization in the region, beginning with Congressman Bob Filner, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, San Diego City Council President Anthony Young, Lemon Grove City Councilmember George Gastil, and former San Diego County Supervisor Leon Williams.
“Shirley Weber is the candidate that most clearly aligns with the Spring Valley-Lemon Grove Democratic Club’s values,” said Gastil. “Her commitment to rebuilding San Diego’s middle class and her message of economic opportunity for everyone make clear what kind of Assembly member she will be. We are proud to stand with her in her campaign.”
State Senator Christine Kehoe, State Senator Noreen Evans, Assembly member Toni Atkins, The Women’s Political Committee, the Democratic Chapter of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, have joined "Run Women Run", and the California chapter of the National Organization for Women in endorsing Webber.
"Dr. Shirley Weber has a long record of standing up for California’s women and the issues they care about," said Evans, who chairs Democratic Chapter of the Legislative Women's Caucus. "She will bring years of experience advocating for education, economic opportunity, women and their families to Sacramento. We are proud to support her campaign."
The California Faculty Association, American Federation of Teachers and the California School Employees Association have all endorsed Weber.
“The American Federation of Teachers is proud to support Shirley Weber for Assembly,” said Jim Mahler, President of AFT Local 1931. “As a former School Board President who helped to close the achievement gap, no one is more focused on improving California’s educational system than Shirley Weber.”
With over 3,000 local affiliates and some 1.5 million members, the American Federation of Teachers is one of the largest educational organizations in the country.
“California needs a fighter for education, and that person is Shirley Weber,” said Dave Low of CSEA. “She has worked extremely hard throughout her career – with great success – to better the lives of everyone from teachers to maintenance workers to clerical staff and we are thrilled to support her.”
The CSEA comprises nearly 220,000 school support staff members throughout California whose work ranges from food services to security to transportation to computer services and more.
“I am honored to receive the support of three incredibly respected organizations who share such a deep commitment to education,” said Weber. “As a poor kid coming out of the projects, I was able to be successful because of the excellent public education I received in California. And as an Assembly member, I will fight to make sure the next little Shirley Weber has that same opportunity.”
Weber's most serious Democratic challenger is Labor and Community Organizer Sid Voorakkara.
"I am a first generation American, the son of immigrants from India," said Voorakkara. "I began my career trying to elect pro-choice, pro-labor Democrats to office. As a child who grew up in a single-parent union household, I deeply value and appreciate the support of San Diego working families. In the Assembly, I will fight tooth and nail to help create good jobs, improve education, and generate new opportunities so every family has a brighter future."
Voorakkara worked for former House Majority Leader and Presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a communication strategist. He currently works as Vice Chair of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest’s Board of Directors. He's a member of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center board, as well as the Advisory Council to the San Diego Community College Board of Trustees.
Professionally, Voorakkara began his career as a Program Manager at the California Endowment, raising grant dollars to focus on improving cultural competency of health systems in San Diego County.This work included diversifying the health care workforce, expanding language access services and working with health systems to provide quality, family-centered care. Prior to joining the Endowment, He managed the grassroots advocacy operations at the United Nations Foundation.
"As the Field Director, I directed the Foundation's priority program, The People Speak initiative," said Voorakkara. "In this capacity, I managed a team at the United Nations Foundation to organize over two thousand local dialogues on America’s role in the world in just over four months. In addition to this role as managing The People Speak initiative, I arranged for members of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Secretariat to travel to major U.S. cities to help build a greater U.S. public understanding of and appreciation for the United Nations."
He has received the endorsement of San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez, Southwestern College Trustee Humberto Peraza, San Diego School Board Trustee President Richard Barrera, San Diego School Board Trustee Sheila Jackson, Former San Diego City Council President Scott Peters, and former California State Assemblyman Howard Wayne.
He is also endorsed by the San Diego City Firefighters Union.
“Sid Voorakkara is the clear choice for State Assembly,” said Frank De Clercq, President, San Diego City Firefighters IAFF Local 145. “Sid understands the challenges our firefighters face everyday and is committed to the safety of our families and neighborhoods. He is an intelligent, common sense leader who has always put forth smart solutions and has a proven ability to bring people together to get results. Sid will be an outstanding member of the legislature and we are committed to supporting him in everyway we can.”
The California Labor Federation, the California Nurses Association, the Teamsters and The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have all endorsed Voorakkara.
“The California Nurses Association is proud to support Sid Voorakkara for State Assembly,” said Malinda Markowitz, R.N., Co-President for CNA and its national arm the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC). “Sid has a successful track record of building diverse coalitions to improve access to healthcare as well as job training and employment opportunities. He is a proven coalition builder and problem solver. His leadership will be a major asset to California.” Support from C.N.A. is highly sought after. The organization is widely viewed as one of the state’s premier labor organizations and a major force in shaping health care policy.
If one Republican has a chance at victory in the heavily Democratic 79th District, it is Lemon Grove City Councilwoman Mary England. England has served on the Lemon Grove City Council for more than a decade and is currently President of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce. She retains a high favorability among constituents in the increasingly Democratic city, and if she can coalesce all the non-Democratic votes in the district, under the new rules established for the primaries, she could emerge a primary winner, while all the Democratic votes are split.
"I believe that our state urgently needs leaders with real world experience and the strength to make the tough decisions necessary to restore the luster of our Golden State," said England. "My priorities will be to encourage private sector job growth, balance the state budget without raising taxes and reform of the state’s public pension system. Fixing California so that it works again for all citizens is a daunting task. But it’s a challenge that I am prepared to meet. My experiences as a businesswoman, as a member of the Lemon Grove City Council and my role as a chamber of commerce executive have given me valuable perspective on what we need for a healthy, vibrant economy."
England has been endorsed by the majority of Republican office holders in San Diego County. Among those endorsing her are Congressman Brian Bilbray, State Senator Joel Anderson, and San Diego Supervisors Bill Horn, Dianne Jacob, and Ron Roberts. San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has endorsed her campaign, as has San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
"As a City Councilmember and a small business owner, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the fiscal mismanagement and political game-playing in our state capitol. The politicians in Sacramento have increased the tax and regulatory burdens on California business, seemingly unconcerned about the harm it does to our state’s employment rate," said England.
England has served on the Lemon Grove City Council since 2000, and has been re-elected twice. In 2008, England was hired to lead the newly reformed La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, after winning the 2004 Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award. She also was chosen as the “Woman of The Year” in the field of Government by the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce in 2007 and received the La Mesa Community Crown Award in 2011.
England worked for Pacific Bell for more than three decades, traveling across the state to identify examples of exemplary customer service, public outreach and public relations. She created various programs that expanded services to customers, increased employee satisfaction and generated increased sales and revenue.
She established her marketing business, Mary England Public Relations, while employed at Pacific Bell. Through her business, she raises funds for local political leaders and creates marketing strategies for businesses and non-profits.
Of all the candidates running, nobody embodies protest-political activism better then former SDSU Professor Patricia Washington. Endorsed by the South Bay Democratic Club, San Diego Democratic Women’s Club, San Diego Unity League, and Democracy for America, her political career has largely been one of group-relegated activism, primarily surrounding the issues of civil liberties, education, and healthcare.
"If not for two teachers who took and interest in me, I would likely not have finished high school, gone on to college, earned my Ph.D. and become and educator," said Washington. "I have experienced first-hand the opportunities provided by a good education and my passion is to provide access to affordable quality education for all young people from pre-school through college. Our tax dollars need to go to classrooms, with equal opportunities for all our students. Our state colleges and universities belong to California residents. We need to fund them adequately and roll back tuition increases and cuts to classes that have blocked access to education for working families."
Washington takes a similar aggressive stand on healthcare, and consumer protection. She promises to fight budget cuts to public schools, and says she'll work to make public universities "accessible and affordable to low and middle income students."
"For many working families, workers don’t have access to employer-sponsored health insurance and wages do not pay enough to cover the cost of health care, which is rising out of reach. We need comprehensive reform to ensure that everyone, regardless of health care need or income level, has access to affordable coverage," said Washington. "I will introduce or support legislation to increase the minimum wage, impose a moratorium on foreclosures, allow families who do not qualify for Medicare or Medi-Cal to purchase low-cost healthcare from a public source, and make it illegal for banks to charge fees on unemployment debit cards.
She became well-known a decade ago, when the Women’s Studies Department at San Diego State University ended her contract and refused to rehire her. Webber accused the department and the university of institutionalized racism.
“The decision to recommend against tenure and promotion in my case is based on actions that violate university policy, including, but not limited to, prohibitions against inequitable treatment on the basis of race (Policy File III-A-3, 1.0),” said Washington in a February 11, 2002 letter to Paul Strand, dean of SDSU’s College of Arts and Letters.
Washington, an African-American and openly gay woman taught at SDSU from 1996 to 2003.
“I filed a grievance with my union (the California Faculty Association) in 1999 over what I considered was a culture of racial discrimination within the Women’s Studies Department. That grievance was never investigated due to the union’s assertions that they could not take action on behalf of one union member against another,” said Washington.
SDSU stated that it rejected granting Washington a tenured position for her lack of professional growth. In a letter dated January 22, 2002, then College of Arts and Letters Dean Paul Strand stated that Washington’s professional growth had been insufficient to warrant a tenured position.
“In my last reappointment letter to you, I indicated that your record did not yet reflect a level of professional growth required to achieve tenure and promotion. The letter went on to urge you to usher your work in progress to publication in refereed journals in your field,” said Strand, referring to academic journals and publications regarded as having judgmental or highly valued influence on the subject matter being addressed. “You had a considerable amount of work in progress at that time in the form of presentations and drafts. Since that time, you have submitted only one additional article, “Political Consequences of De-Racing Same-Sex Sexuality,” for consideration to Meridians. It has yet to be accepted…. I continue to view this record as insufficient for tenure and promotion at San Diego State University,” said Strand.
Tenure allows a professor security in employment, as it is very hard to remove a faculty member from the job once he or she has been awarded tenure. At SDSU, the criteria for evaluating candidates for retention, tenure, or promotion are the same three basic criteria approved by the SDSU faculty senate and published in the Faculty Handbook. They include: teaching effectiveness, professional growth, and service to the university.
“We recognize the integral interconnections among all three. It is expected that candidates for reappointment, tenure, and promotion meet or exceed the university expectations in all three areas of academic life, with particular weight being placed upon excellence in teaching and professional growth,” states the handbook.
Washington countered this statement in a letter of rebuttal.
“Your evaluation of my professional growth suggests that you have disregarded two key provisions of the University Policy File - namely that the evaluator should be looking for evidence of “continuous growth” and that the evaluator should consider the candidate’s entire record - not just the accomplishments of the immediate past year,” said Washington. “Moreover, your evaluation inappropriately and unnecessarily constricts the definition of professional growth found in the University Policy File by suggesting, first, that publications are the only legitimate indicators of professional growth and, second, that those publications must appear only in refereed journals.”
Washington listed some of the publications and professional activities she had involved herself with, and which met the original criteria for tenure at SDSU when she was hired in 1996. Among her published articles:
- Disclosure Patterns of Black Female Sexual Assault Survivors, which appeared in the journal Violence Against Women:
- Who Gets to Drink From the Fountain of Freedom? Homophobia Within Communities of Color, published in the Journal of Lesbian and Gay Social Services;
- The Second Assault of Male Survivors of Sexual Violence, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence;
Speaking out in support of Washington was longtime San Diego GLBT activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez.
“Silence is betrayal. Pat flew over every hurdle and denying her tenure is masking the real reasons for her dismissal. You don’t have to burn a cross in Virginia Beach to be a racist,” said Murray-Ramirez. “This action reveals the double legacy of the SDSU Women’s Studies department. It has advanced the cause of women’s rights, yet at the same time only hired one black in over 30 years. That is a racist legacy and we will not abide by that agenda.”