Mark Hedin | California Black Media
Since Yvonne Braithwaite Burke became the first Black woman elected to serve in the California State Assembly in 1966, 20 other African women have represented their constituents in both houses of the California State Legislature with distinction. Many of them have gone on to make their marks in various political arenas at the state, local and national levels.
Take U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-12), who represented Oakland and adjacent communities in the State Assembly and Senate for eight years before winning the first of 13 terms she has now served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Or Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass, also a California Assembly alumna, who became Speaker of the body in 2008. and served six terms in the U.S. Congress. Or U.S.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA-29) represented South LA in the Assembly is serving her 17th term in the U.S. Congress.
Other Black alumnae of the California Assembly and Senate are: California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber (2012-2021, Assembly); Theresa P. Hughes (1975-1992, Assembly, and 1992-2000, Senate); Gwen Moore (1978-1994, Assembly); former U.S. Congressmember Diane E. Watson (1978-1998, Assembly); Marguerite Archie-Hudson (1990-1996, Assembly); former U.S. Congressmember Juanita Millender-McDonald (1992-1996, Assembly); former U.S. Congressmember Laura Richardson (2006-2007, Assembly); Wilmer Amina Carter (2006-2012, Assembly); California State Commissioner on Aging Cheryl Brown (2012-2016, Assembly); Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell (2010-2013, Assembly, and 2013-2020, Senate), Autumn Burke (2014-2022, Assembly), and U.S.
Congressmember Syndey Kamlager ( 2018-2021 Assembly, 2021-2022, Senate).
In 2023, five of the California’s Black Legislative Caucus’ (CBLC) 12 members are women. They are:
Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D – Ladera Heights)
The only Black woman in the California State Senate, Lola Smallwood-Cuevas represents state Senate District 28, a small, densely populated section of Los Angeles County that includes Culver City and parts of mid-city Los Angeles and unincorporated Los Angeles County.
She began her career as a journalist in Oakland, Chicago and Long Beach, where she became active as a newspaper union organizer before joining the labor movement on a broader scale, starting with the SEIU.
She worked in the successful Justice for Janitors campaign of the 1990s, and during 15 years working at UCLA, she founded the Center for Advancement of Racial Equity at Work and co-founded the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, which became a model for similar organizations across the country, recognized by President Barack Obama.
In her first months as a state senator, Smallwood-Cuevas has introduced a package of worker and civil rights measures. Among them is SB 627, legislation that would help workers laid off by a chain business to find work at other locations nearby. Another, SB 497, would offer workers whistleblower protection in cases of alleged wage theft or unequal pay.
Lori Wilson (D – Suisun City)
When she was elected mayor of Suisun City in 2018, Lori Wilson became the first-ever Black woman to serve as mayor anywhere in Solano County. She’d been vice-mayor for six years.
Now, she’s chair of the CBLC after her election in April last year to represent the 11th Assembly district, which straddles Solano and Contra Costa counties.
She earned a degree from CSU Sacramento in Business Administration and in a 20-year career in finance and accounting worked with homebuilders, fair housing agencies and as Solano County’s auditor. In Suisun City, she brought these skills to bear in helping house fire refugees and addressing COVID challenges.
She serves on the Appropriations, Banking and Finance, and the Accountability and Administrative Review standing committees.
Akilah Weber (D – San Diego)
From the 79th Assembly district is Akilah Weber, representing parts of San Diego, her hometown, and El Cajon, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley/La Presa and La Mesa.
After becoming first Black person ever elected to the La Mesa city council in 2018, Weber left in early 2021 to run for the Assembly seat in a special election to replace her mother, Dr. Shirley Weber, who’d been named secretary of state. She won, and her mother swore her in. Akilah Weber was re-elected in 2022.
Weber is a doctor who founded San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology Division, heads the adolescent gynecology program at UC San Diego Health, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCSD.
Looking back at her time on the La Mesa City Council, she told the San Diego Union Tribune her “most important vote” had been to form the city’s Community Police Oversight Board. She also supported creating its homelessness task force and implementing its Climate Action Plan.
In the state Assembly, she serves on six standing committees: Health, Higher Education Appropriations, Communications and Conveyance, and Water, Parks and Wildlife, Legislative Ethics Committee (co-chair) and Social Determinants of Health select committee (chair).
Tina McKinnor (D – Inglewood)
Tina McKinnor’s 61st Assembly district spans communities in western Los Angeles County including Inglewood, Gardena, Hawthorne, Marina del Rey, Venice, Westchester, Westmont, West Athens and parts of Los Angeles.
She was elected to the state Assembly in July last year in a special election after the sudden resignation of Autumn Burke, herself a former CBLC vice-chair and the daughter of California Assembly alum and three-term U.S. Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Burke cited COVID impacts on her family at the time for her resignation.
McKinnor, who had worked in the Assembly for years as Burke’s chief of staff, is now chair of the Assembly’s Public Employment and Retirement Committee, chair of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games Select Committee, and a member of the Business and Professions and the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials committees.
Before serving in the Assembly, McKinnor worked for the nonprofit LAVoice developing affordable housing in coordination with faith-based organizations.
McKinnor has also been active in advancing reproductive rights, health care and police reforms.
Mia Bonta (D – Oakland)
Mia Bonta ran for and won the 18th Assembly district seat in Alameda County in a 2021 special election called atter her husband, Rob Bonta, who’d held the seat since 2012, was named California Attorney General.
Bonta describes herself as a “proud Black Latina, raised by activists who protested outside the halls of power so that people like her could one day have a seat at the table inside.”
She earned her law degree at Yale, after studying there as an undergraduate. She earned her Ed.M from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Prior to being elected to the state Assembly, Bonta work revolved around improving educational outcomes for low-income students as CEO of Oakland Promise, a district-wide Oakland college and career prep program, and board president of the Alameda Unified School District.
She serves on six Assembly committees: Joint Legislative Budget, Public Safety, Human Services, Communications and Conveyance, Business and Professions and the Budget Committee, including two of its subcommittees No. 5 — Public Safety — and No. 6 — Budget Process, Oversight and Program Evaluation.