Dr. Shirley Weber’s path toward history: From SDSU professor to California Secretary of State

Gov.+Gavin+Newsom+swears+in+Dr.+Shirley+Weber+as+California%27s+new+Secretary+of+State+following+Alex+Padilla%27s+appointment+to+the+U.S.+Senate+in+order+to+fill+the+vacancy+created+by+Vice+President+Kamala+Harris.+

Photo courtesy of the Office of Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom swears in Dr. Shirley Weber as California’s new Secretary of State following Alex Padilla’s appointment to the U.S. Senate in order to fill the vacancy created by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Jayne Yutig

by Jayne Yutig, Staff Writer

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber is used to this. The shattering of glass ceilings, the breaking of records and the messages of congratulations. It has all become part of Weber’s ascent from San Diego State professor to becoming California’s first Black secretary of state. As Weber reflects on this historic moment, she said none of this was part of her life plan.

“I never think about making history, everyone else tells me about it,” Weber said. “I recognize that. But, anytime I make some of these milestones I always ask the question ‘why so long?’.”

Weber is asking herself how it would take 170 years for an African American to become secretary of state in one of the most progressive states in the nation. “It’s not that we were short of people qualified to do the job. It’s not really about our ability, but about those who make decisions,” Weber said. 

After the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, Gov. Gavin Newsom made two historic appointments. Then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla was appointed by Newsom to fill Harris’ senate seat and Weber was sworn in by Newsom just days away from the start of Black History Month. This moment and its significance – albeit overdue – isn’t lost on Weber. 

“I’ve had a lot of young folks talk to me about what it’s to get to this level and it’s important, it’s very significant,” Weber said. 

Weber began her career as one of SDSU’s youngest professors in the 1970s, establishing the Africana Studies department. Beginning in 2012, Weber served as an assembly member representing California’s 79th Assembly District and never lost an election.

Weber said, “It was not on my life plan. It was just a result of working hard that people actually thought ‘maybe this woman could do this’.”

Weber’s hard work will continue as she takes the reigns as California’s chief elections officer. 

In 2020, California saw record-breaking voter turnout with 17.8 million voters casting their ballots in the 2020 presidential election, according to a Votebeat analysis

The staggering turnout was in large part due to mail-in ballots, after lawmakers in Sacramento made it so every eligible voter was sent a mail-in ballot.

Weber confirmed that she would like to see mail-in ballots become a permanent fixture of the California election system during her tenure.

“We know it works. We know what it can do. We know the turnout is great. So, we need to build on it, we need to build on it and continue to build on it,” Weber said.

As the longest-serving member on the Assembly Committee on Elections in Sacramento, Weber helped shape election measures that were put into place during the 2020 election. These measures were studied and created years before the pandemic but were activated due to the evolving COVID-19 crisis. The measures included allowing parolees to vote, creating voting centers and expanding mail-in voting. 

“We could then go and actually do all these things we thought about. And do it, interestingly enough, with a level of expertise, and a level of safety, security and transparency,” Weber said.

“I think all of us were shocked at how well it went, and how many people turned out to vote because it was convenient,” Weber said. “If we can implement the things that we started this past year, I think we will be lightyears ahead in terms of voter turnout.” Weber’s first tests in her new role will be the April 6 primary, and June 8 special election for California’s 79th Assembly District. The vacancy created by Weber’s resignation will be a closely watched contest. Candidates that have announced their bid for the seat include Weber’s daughter, Dr. Akilah Weber who is a physician, and La Mesa City Council member. The younger Weber won the California Democratic Party endorsement on Feb. 8. 

“I think it’s extremely important that students vote,” Secretary Weber said. “You are a student who attends a state institution which means you are funded by the state. You have a vested interest probably much more than other students who go to private institutions.”

Financial assistance, expansions of campuses and academic requirements are decisions, Weber emphasized, made by elected officials in Sacramento. 

“Hopefully, students recognize that by being silent, they end up getting whatever they get,” she said.

Heading into the special election, Weber is encouraged by the 2020 voter turnout among students. “I think students had a great turnout this year, I think students realize they are affected 

by it,” Weber said.

Though the two elections in the coming months will occupy Weber’s time, she’s also looking a couple of years ahead toward 2022. 

“I have a campaign for 2022. That was the deal I made,” Weber said.

Weber announced that she would run to keep her position as secretary of state after serving the remainder of Alex Padilla’s term. 

Weber’s plans for the office stretches beyond the confines of her current appointment, which ends next year. Weber said she has more to learn, more to become proficient in and more to give to all Californians. 

“When I was asked, I would not do it as a caretaker. I would do it as someone who would actually be secretary of state,” Weber said.

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