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Essential Politics: California’s new elections chief is ‘a sister who doesn’t back down’

Secretary of State Shirley Weber
Secretary of State Shirley Weber at the state Capitol last week as the Assembly voted on her confirmation to be California’s chief elections officer.
(Associated Press)

There are probably dozens of men and women who attended San Diego State University and still remember the Africana studies professor who made it clear she expected to see her students wearing an “I Voted” sticker on election day.

That educator now has an audience of millions for her message on the importance of voting, starting her first week as California’s chief elections officer.

“You cannot be an intelligent person in my class and not be registered to vote,” California Secretary of State Shirley Weber says she used to tell her students. “I’ve always put voting as a central piece of social justice — in my classes, in my life.”

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The 72-year-old Democrat, the first Black Californian to hold the office and only the third woman to do so, discussed the challenges that lie ahead in a conversation on Friday, just a couple of hours before taking the oath of office from Gov. Gavin Newsom.

‘We need to have your voice’

Few who have watched Weber’s eight-year career in the state Assembly will be surprised to see her bring a civil rights focus to the job of secretary of state.

“There hasn’t been a time in my life that I have not worked to register people to vote, to get people to the polls, to go in and out of churches and say, ‘Hey, you need a bigger turnout, we need to have your voice,’” she said.

“Some might think, well, you know you’ve got to get reelected, you’ve got to say the right things. No, I don’t. I have to say what is correct, OK? I have to say not what makes you feel good, but what is correct and defend the rights of every person to vote in California.”

It’s unlikely that Weber will chart a decidedly different course in the near future than that of her predecessor, Sen. Alex Padilla. She supports the state’s ongoing efforts to expand voting options beyond in-person voting on election day and said she also supports a proposal that cleared the state Senate last week to mail all voters a ballot for any special election held in 2021. (There are two special legislative elections expected this year, including one to fill her Assembly seat representing parts of the San Diego area.)

Weber also acknowledged her office may need to embrace a more proactive explanation about election processes and problems in the wake of a political season marked by false accusations of systemic voter fraud.

“I think being transparent is extremely important to help people understand, to have confidence in voting,” she said. “We’re going to be looking at our whole issue of community outreach — that’s more than just registering individuals, but really giving people correct information about what we’re doing.”

Weber is filling the final two years of Padilla’s four-year term and said she will seek election to the post in 2022. And while the secretary of state must fairly oversee elections, it is a partisan office. But Weber insisted the two are not incompatible.

“I’m a Democrat, no question about it,” she said. “I have my philosophy about a whole lot of issues. But the main thing — of everyone’s right to vote and protecting everyone’s right to vote — is critical. And I think that should be done by Democrats and Republicans.”

And yes, Weber said, it’s true that she hadn’t really thought about serving in the post before being approached by Newsom’s staff not long before the announcement. But she said she’s committed to the work that lies ahead.

“This is a sister who doesn’t back down,” Weber said with a chuckle. “This is a woman that when it’s right, it’s right.”

A dilemma for Democrats: Criticize Newsom?

Democrats applauded Newsom’s choice of Weber for secretary of state, but they are starting to break ranks over the governor’s handling of several of the state’s COVID-19 responses.

The criticism spilled into public view last week after the governor’s surprise decision to cancel all regional restrictions put in place in December due to the shrinking availability of ICU beds. And the week before that, several Democratic legislators sharply criticized Newsom’s Dec. 30 blueprint for reopening elementary schools.

Even so, they realize that taking issue with Newsom’s job performance could give fuel to the Republican-led campaign to force a gubernatorial recall election later this year. And so many have made clear that they don’t want the governor to lose his job — they just want him to do the job better.

Meanwhile, the loosely affiliated groups pushing the recall must collect almost 1.5 million voter signatures needed to force a special statewide election — and said Sunday they’ve pushed past 1.3 million signatures, though they’ve yet to turn in that many to elections officials. Even then, they’ll undoubtedly need the same kind of cushion as all ballot measure campaigns seek to ensure the mark isn’t missed after some signatures are deemed invalid.

In his Monday column, George Skelton assesses the evidence that Newsom’s recent governing decisions show he’s feeling the heat.

“Politicians always deny that, as if reading the polls and complying with people’s desires is somehow a sign of weakness — or even sleaziness,” Skelton writes. “To me, these denials are silly. In a healthy democracy, there’s a delicate balance between leading the voters and following them. Politicians are elected to represent the people’s interests and desires, after all.”

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How and why will Blue Shield run vaccine efforts?

Concerns were also raised last week by the announcement that Newsom administration officials have decided to create a new statewide management system for distributing COVID-19 vaccine doses and have selected Blue Shield to run the program.

“The whole idea is a more unified, statewide network approach, as opposed to [a] bottom-up [approach],” Newsom said last Monday, promising more details on Tuesday. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that we learned that Blue Shield had been selected for the task — but even then, only a few basic details about what it will entail.

Some local governments believe the change will make matters worse.

“Introducing a third-party administrator to make changes based upon insufficient data at the state level will slow down vaccination rates in counties that are equipped and ready,” wrote Ventura County officials to Newsom on Thursday.

As of now, state health officials haven’t said whether the agreement with Blue Shield has been finalized or whether its details will be made public.

National lightning round

— A group of Senate Republicans called on President Biden to negotiate as he signaled he could pass a $1.9-trillion coronavirus aid package with Democratic votes.

— What’s driving many Democrats’ zeal to go big and fast on a relief bill, without waiting for GOP support? Their memories of being played by Republicans in 2009 and 2010.

— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene returned to her conservative northwest Georgia district last week to find a small but growing number of locals questioning her antics.

— “The biggest danger right now is that we’ve become a party that dabbles — not just dabbles — we traffic in conspiracies and we traffic in lies,” said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger in launching an effort to change the course of the GOP.

— Former President Donald Trump announced Sunday that a criminal defense lawyer and a former county prosecutor who was criticized for his decision to not charge actor Bill Cosby in a sex crimes case will lead his impeachment defense team.

— Armed with lessons learned in Trump’s first impeachment trial, House Democrats prepare for a different kind of proceeding this time.

— Republican lawmakers in statehouses across the country are moving swiftly to attack some of the voting methods that fueled the highest turnout for a presidential election in 50 years.

— Environmental justice groups in California and elsewhere are muscling for influence in Washington, unleashing long-simmering tensions in the broader movement.

Today’s essential California politics

— Newsom on Friday signed an emergency bill that will extend through June eviction protections for Californians suffering financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic, acting just days before an earlier moratorium was set to expire.

— California’s unemployment agency was unprepared to help workers left jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic and it failed to address systemic problems that were known for nearly a decade, according to a state audit released last week.

— A federal appeals court has struck down California coronavirus rules limiting indoor church attendance to specific numbers but allowed the state to continue to ban indoor worship during times of widespread infection.

— The California Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case of a judge disciplined for sexual misconduct, forcing him to step down.

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