WEST SACRAMENTO – As citizens across the country are starting to cast their ballots for what could be the nation’s first African American vice president, local voters are also facing a choice with history-making implications.

Dawnté Early is one of five people vying for two available seats on the West Sacramento City Council. If elected, she would be the first African American to serve since the City’s incorporation in January 1987.

“Not woman. Not man. Person period,” Ms. Early said of the possibility of pioneering in the role.

“I have thought about it and the fact that we’re in 2020 and we’d be making history,” she said.

Diversity in leadership is important, she added.

“It’s important to have different people with different lived experiences. I personally think that’s where the best solutions are created. You’re able to ask different questions– How is this going to impact communities that I’ve been a part of and have experiences with that maybe you don’t? And that’s not a bad thing.”

Ms. Early says her background as a data researcher whose work “intentionally lifts up the voices that often go unheard”makes her the perfect candidate for the kind of leadership that is needed during the unprecedented times we’re living in.

“I’m a public health researcher and also a data wonk. I call myself a data detective and as our communities are dealing with so much– our pandemic and some of the other issues that we were already dealing with but now have been exasperated by the pandemic — I think it’s important that we are really taking a look at the data, as we have limited resources and we’re trying to figure out where we can invest. How can we help our communities the most with what we have?”

Like many other cities, West Sacramento is grappling with the issue of homeless residents. There’s a greater sense of urgency is finding ways to address the unhoused, Ms. Early says as winter is coming and folks are still being deluged by COVID-19-related closures and scrambling for resources. She looks to help create compassionate and empathetic solutions.

“You are going to have to think innovatively and creatively in ways we’ve never had to before because it’s an unprecedented time,” she said.

Although smaller than its neighbor, Sacramento, West Sacramento is not immune to some of the issues that have been gripping the capital city. On September 12, 88-year-old African American man, Robert Coleman, was fatally shot by police officers there. Officers say Coleman, a former code and parking enforcement officer for the city, got out of his vehicle and approached them with a gun. The West Sacramento Police Department later released body camera footage of the incident.

Ms. Early praised Mayor Cabaldon’s proactive approach to exploring “what community policing can look like” prior to recent calls for defunding or reimagining law enforcement and prior to tragedies actually taking place. Coleman’s death was reported as West Sacramento’s first fatal officer-involved shooting in nearly 20 years.

Ms. Early points to a task force the mayor formed of African American leaders as part of former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the formation of a mental health responding unit meant to free up law enforcement from handling non-criminal calls. Sacramento County Board of Supervisors recently discussed a similar move for the Sheriff’s Department.

“We’ve done it,” Ms. Early said of her Yolo County city. “I was a part of that task force.”

“Robert Coleman had mental issues,” she said. “His family came out and said that and also had been dealing with suicide ideation, so maybe this mental health unit wouldn’t have stopped that police shooting from happening that night, but if you step backwards, because the family had been reaching out for quite some time, if you had a mental health unit that could then direct you to and connect you to services…maybe that incident wouldn’t even have happened because Robert and his family would have been connected to the services that they needed.”

West Sacramento is also dealing with the heavy impact of COVID-19’s economic fall out on small businesses, with many closing or trying to adapt to operate at lower capacity in order to comply with state mandates–and to stay afloat.

“I’ve certainly been looking around and thinking, ‘how can we ensure that when we come out of the pandemic as a community that all of our community has come out with us?’ Meaning you do not have small business owners who are digging their way out of poverty because of what has happened and businesses not having the funding or customer base to battle back with us from COVID.”

The priority, she says, will be ensuring that those who are “struggling the most” are “the first in line” for recovery resources.

“That’s where your City Council can come into play,” she said, adding that the body should take the lead in crafting the policy on how those funds are allocated.

Residents want to feel safe and protected.

“So much of what we’re seeing at the national level, I think scares us, so how can we look at our local leaders and feel like they actually see us and hear us? As I’ve been phone banking that’s a lot of what I’ve been hearing as well. ‘Hey, we’re struggling and so yeah, I’m going to vote for you, but I’m going to ask that you don’t forget about me.”

Ms. Early acknowledges that she doesn’t have as much name recognition as some of the other city council candidates, but hopes that will actually work for her, rather than against her.

“I’m not a politician. That’s not what I do for a living,” she shared.

“I’m a public servant. That is my job. I’m stepping up because I think my experience, my training is what our community needs right now. When people say ‘Hey, why did you decide to run?,’ my honest answer is because I think I can help.”

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer