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“You Never Know What People Are Going to Try”: California’s Secretary of State on the recall vote, election protections, and prison reform

Dr. Shirley Weber is juggling a potential recall vote of Governor Gavin Newsom, a push to restrict voting rights, and a fundamental change in the way we think about incarceration—all while only having met her colleagues on Zoom: “I don’t even know how tall the people I work with are.”

When Dr. Shirley Weber was sworn in as California’s Secretary of State on January 29, she became the first African American to step into the role. Secretaries of State have garnered more visibility following the last election when many were either the final defense against voter disenfranchisement or working in support of the Trump administration to inflame mistrust in the democratic process. Though Weber has been in the role less than five months, she’s been a behind-the-scenes force in many of the state’s sweeping changes in public policy and education. Before spending eight years in the California State assembly, she taught African studies at San Diego State University, where for more than four decades she made it her prerogative to change how students learned and understood American history, highlighting pieces of the past that were omitted. 

Weber now has more leeway to pursue that mission, while still keeping eyes on pressing issues like voting rights, housing disparities, economic inequity, and prison reform. She’s done much of this with a purely virtual support system. “We have close to 600 employees, and only 20 to 25% can be in the building at one time,” she says. “Most of the stuff I’ve never seen in person.” 

One of the biggest changes she put forward prior to being sworn in was the 3070 bill, which changed the way juries are selected in the state. “People were able to throw someone off the jury for any little reason, and now they have to justify those things. A lot of the reasons were racial like they didn’t like the color of the woman’s hair or they didn’t think she was attentive. This bill made that difficult if not impossible to do.” With Governor Gavin Newsom likely facing a recall vote as the state slowly emerges from the pandemic and strains under a homelessness problem, Weber spoke about the challenges ahead, the shifting conversation around public safety, and safeguarding voter protections.

Vanity Fair: As states across the U.S. start to open up, what has life been like in your new position?

Shirley Weber: With the size of this job and especially the way in which I’ve come into it, the change has been enormous. If I had run for the position as most folks do, I would probably have had at least a year to look at the job, memorize things, and become familiar with the operation. The other piece is that everything is virtual. We have close to 600 employees, and only 20 to 25% can be in the building at one time. I’ve met most of the staff on Zoom. You learn very quickly that you gather your knowledge of individuals and identities by not only their name, their voice, and what they do, but also their mannerisms, how they walk, how they respond to questions, their body language. And the only body language I see is from the shoulders up. One of the running jokes is that I don’t even know how tall the people I work with are. Some of them started volunteering their heights, yelling out ‘I’m 5’3 or I’m 5’7.’ That’s been a challenge, but the job itself does not wait for me to figure it out. There’s a lawsuit every week, if not every day, concerning voting and other things people are raising issues about. 

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Right now there’s the possibility of a recall vote in California, with Republicans hoping to take over Gavin Newsom’s position. With no other Democrats running, are you worried that party hubris will lead to a Republican win?

That’s always a possibility. All the data shows that if a recall were held today, it would fail because there’s no real basis for it. So it will be interesting to see. But it’s important that we have a governor who is supportive of a change agenda. Also, the fact of the matter is there are only 16 or 17 Republicans in the assembly and similar numbers in the senate. So we have a supermajority to do the right thing. We believe that the legislative branch is pretty strong, and that’s why we haven’t had the kinds of attacks other states have in terms of people wanting to take away the right to vote. 

In other words, you’re confident in the position Democrats hold in the assembly and the senate?

Yes. It’s important to have a governor who’s supportive because you need that person to sign your bills. But when you have the kind of numbers we do, you can override a veto very quickly. California is in a good position when it comes to COVID; we see a light at the end of the tunnel. [And] we’re dealing with a budget surplus, so those are positive ingredients that say we don’t recall this governor. But you never know what people are going to try to do, and we anticipate that. My job is to ensure that the election process is fair and impartial regardless of what I think about it, but it doesn’t worry me at night that all of a sudden California is going to become like Mississippi or South Carolina.

Speaking of which, red states across the country are passing laws designed to limit peoples’ ability to vote. How do you plan to use your resources to safeguard the democratic process?

As soon as I became Secretary of State, we sent letters to all 60,000 people in California who are on parole telling them they could now vote. Parolees and people on probation have that right; the legislation passed last November. We’re also working with the Department of Corrections [to] inform people being released that they have the right to register to vote immediately. We’ve begun to work with our high school students to upgrade their civic education; our high school students can register to vote at 16, even though they can’t vote until they’re 18. [And] we just finished our College Bowl, which is a competition between our universities to see who had the highest percentage of students registered to vote, and who registered the largest numbers on campus. 

We’re [also] working hard to make sure we deal with misinformation campaigns about voting. There are 58 counties in California, and each one has a registrar. We’re working with them to increase the knowledge people have about how their ballot is counted and what’s available to them so that whatever rumors are being spread at any particular moment we can respond very quickly. We have staff who work on social media combating misinformation. We’ve been getting pushback from people who don’t think it’s our job. 

Who’s been giving you pushback?

Last I heard, someone was trying to sue us. We get sued so often saying we shouldn’t be putting this information out. Some [people] were even attacking our staff. The disinformation campaign folks are constantly wishing we wouldn’t put this information out, but we are going to continue to do so. 

It seems like your years in education have equipped you for this moment, when a lot of the country is reexamining how it addresses African-American history. Taking into account the conversation around things like the 1619 project and removing monuments, what do you think should be the next step in how educational institutions treat Black history?

One of the bills I passed is Bill 1460, which basically requires every student who graduates from a California state university to have at least one course in the four historic ethnic studies disciplines: Black/Africana, Latino/x, API, and Native/Indigenous. It’s a mandate; it’s not optional. The trustees didn’t necessarily want that at Cal State University, which is the largest public university system in the world, with over half a million students. People didn’t recognize that this was going to change the dynamic because you would have people of color teaching at universities where there have only been a few in the past. The fact that we are going to have ethnic studies for every college graduate means that almost every student who enters our public schools will have a teacher who’s had a course in it. 

Having been a professor for over 40 years, I’ve seen students transform when they come into my class. When I was in the assembly, every year during Black history month I gave presentations about why history is so important and how it changes not only Black people but everybody. So when I asked them to approve permanent ethnic studies, I had already converted 120 members of the assembly and senate to understand that power. 

You’ve talked a lot about restorative justice and its lasting effects on prison reform. I spoke to Congresswoman Cori Bush a few weeks ago, and she also talked about the need for widespread reform. Where do you think restorative justice fits in terms of how people understand public safety?

I think folks at every level are beginning to understand that whatever plan we’ve had in place did not work before. Period. Folks really had a desire for punishment rather than rehabilitation. 

We are looking at closing a prison this year in Stockton, and we’re looking to put others online this year to be closed. We cut our youth prison population immensely; we had several thousand before, now we have about 700 or so. And we’re working to keep them closer to their homes and families. So we’re changing our attitude toward prisons, and now we have to make sure we change the issues of incarceration, sentencing, and diversifying juries. We are trying to get some sense of social justice into prison reform. That’s brought our recidivism rate down too because we were recycling the same people through the prisons. We have half the people in prison than we had before, and that hasn’t made everybody happy. But it has not made us more vulnerable; we are just as safe. 

You have a lot on your plate. What do you do for fun? Do you read? Is there a movie that puts you in a nice place?

[Laughs] A nice place? Well, I have really strong relationships with my family. We watch a movie together, and we meet every Sunday at 5 p.m. on Zoom to talk about that movie. I also have a cadre of women friends who just love to do nothing. They come over to the house to eat, relax, and play Chickenfoot. That’s our specialty—we play until three in the morning.

What’s Chickenfoot?

It’s a dominoes game that’s crazy good. I also have three grandkids so I’m a little league grandma, I go to swim meets, I do all the things everyone else does and try to keep my life as normal as possible. It may get more hectic now because I do have security so I have to be careful where I go because people do threaten us. But I try to keep my life very normal. I have a political life that’s very active, but I also have a community life that’s very active because I do a host of things. What I’ve also been able to do over the years is transfer some of my work to the support system of young people. I think that’s a message for all of us who are extremely busy: to make sure that we mentor others. They learn what you know and can do what you do so that when we can’t do it, they can.

Vanity Fair.

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