Black lawmakers reflect on triumphs, challenges of service

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By Regina Wilson and Joe W. Bowers Jr.| 

Contributing Writers

SANTA BARBARA — At a candid panel discussion hosted by the California African American Political Action Committee, five former Black California lawmakers shared their experiences and accomplishments, highlighting the challenges of serving in the State Legislature and the foresight required to build consensus and drive positive change.

The California African American Political Action Committee is a non-partisan political action committee that supports candidates who are committed to addressing America’s historical and systemic problems. It believes that serving communities requires integrity, passion and determination.

The panel discussion was held during the committee’s annual retreat Aug. 11-13.

Participating on the lawmaker panel conducted before current and aspiring legislators, as well as lobbyists representing a variety of interests were California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who formerly represented the 79th Assembly District and served as chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus; Herb Wesson, former speaker of the California Assembly; Rod Wright, former state senator from South Los Angeles; Cheryl Brown, a former assemblywoman from the Inland Empire; and Autumn Burke, a former assemblywoman from Inglewood.

The panelists explored a range of topics, including the significance of bipartisanship and the need for people with shared goals and political objectives to present a united front.

“We as a caucus vowed to one another that if ever we were angry, whenever there was a disappointment, that stuff stayed between us,” Wesson said. “We agreed that we were going to focus on being united, even though there were only four [Blacks] in the Assembly. We were in lockstep whenever we could be, but if we disagreed, we disagreed.”

Weber recounted her journey as an Assembly member, highlighting the negotiations and persuasion it took to pass Assembly Bill 392, a landmark piece of legislation that limited the use of force by law enforcement officers. The bill faced opposition from law enforcement advocates but ultimately gained bipartisan support. 

Weber credited the bill’s passage to relationships she made with legislative members from both parties, as well as her work with community advocates to ensure the bill was signed into law.

“We had an army that was in every building, raising the heat on the issue,” Weber said.

Burke stressed the importance of accommodating diverse viewpoints, especially those of women legislators who bring unique perspectives from their experiences as caregivers and community leaders.

“A lot of us run our homes, so we know how to keep a budget. We know what they need,” she said, highlighting the contributions of women legislators in California who have been central to shaping many policies that impact the lives of people every day.

When the conversation turned to representation, the legislators acknowledged the challenges of representing diverse constituencies within their districts.

Brown recounted how members of the Legislature and outside groups criticized her for focusing on the needs of aging Californians.

“You know there is a silver tsunami coming, look around folks it’s here,” Brown said. “There are more people that are over the age 65 than under the age of 18, which is why I have been working for years to ensure we address the needs of seniors.”

In the 2023-2024 budget, the governor allocated $50 million dollars to address a range of issues relating to older adults.

Burke also discussed the challenges of representing a district whose demographics span people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. She said that a good leader must balance the needs of affluent neighborhoods with those of lower income areas, while also emphasizing the importance of addressing the unique concerns of each community.

In her closing remarks, Weber encouraged the next generation of legislators to prioritize unity, maintain integrity, and work relentlessly for the betterment of California.

“When we come together and have a unified agenda, we can achieve great things,” Weber said.

Regina Wilson and Joe W. Bowers Jr. are reporters for California Black Media.

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