By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The numbers can’t be denied this time. A year after the first vote, heated debate and a special election, local data scientist Dr. Dawnte Early will become the first African American to serve on the West Sacramento City Council.
Dr. Early secured her seat in last Tuesday’s election, defeating area entrepreneur Duane Wilson, with 61.8% of the vote. Only 9,748 people voted out of approximately 121,000 who were eligible.
“I was able to get out there and talk to the community about what I was standing for and why I wanted to represent West Sacramento — that resonated,” she said.
“When you look at the campaign that I was able to run and the coalitions that I was able to build and people I was able to bring together, it goes from kids all the way right to older adults. Everyone (regardless of ) race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation came together. So for me, that’s what I’m proudest of, and that’s what those numbers represent to me.”
Dr. Early didn’t win in last November’s election, losing by a mere 89 votes. When Councilmember Martha Guerrero beat out incumbent mayor Christopher Cabaldon, Dr. Early could have been appointed to a seat on the Council then, filling the vacancy as the next top vote getter. Newly elected Mayor Guerrero was adamant that that tradition not be employed, that a new pool of candidates be culled instead.
So Dr. Early got ready to run.
“It would have been great to have been appointed and had two years to be able to govern, and work to help the city, but I also think that it’s really important that the community, the city residents, our constituents here in West Sacramento had an opportunity to say, ‘This is the person I want representing me.’ That is our voice.”
Dr. Early will now sit beside a mayor who blocked her from joining the council. She’s focused on moving forward, not looking back.
“We may not always agree on everything. I also believe that all of our city council members, as well as our mayor, are volunteering, because this really is a public service, and are stepping up because they want to see West Sacramento succeed.”
That is Dr. Early’s goal as well.
“Our problems are too great and the challenges too immense not to work together,” she said. “There is no time to be divisive. There is no time not to come together with West Sacramento’s best interests in mind. That should be our guiding star. Our North Star should be, ‘How do we help our community?’”
Dr. Early is a product of the local community. The child of two Air Force veterans, she starred on the Folsom High School girl’s basketball team, earned a full scholarship to HBCU Alabama A&M, and got her doctorate in human development from UC Davis. She has conducted research on the Affordable Care Act and the impact of health care services on the recidivism rates of those released from prison. Dr. Early has also worked to improve racial and gender equity in the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, and to reform California’s mental health system.
The historic West Sacramento election was overshadowed by the recall election it shared a ballot with, but Dr. Early said it was actually a blessing in that it saved the City approximately $167,000 in additional costs it would have had to fork out for a separate election process.
Dr. Early is set to be sworn in on October 20. She’s already focused on addressing West Sac’s issues and concerns, including how to help the city bounce back from the continued coronavirus pandemic.
“We have opened up way more than we were last year, but there’s still this kind of limbo, almost anxiety around what’s going to happen,” she shared.
Winter is coming and with it, flu season. That, coupled with the growing impact of the Delta variant, could prove catastrophic.
“The things that I’m paying attention to as I’m stepping into this role, is we have COVID dollars that are coming in, American Rescue Plan Act money that’s coming in,” she said.
West Sacramento was allotted $11.7 million from the federal government that will allow the city to address health emergency and economic impacts, pay for essential workers, replace lost revenue, or cover investments in water, sewer, and broadband. The City receives half the funds in 2021 and the other half in 2022. There are also funds coming in to address housing and infrastructure.
“How do we leverage these funds to ensure that we are helping those who have been hit hardest by COVID from the previous year and a half, but also ensure that those who are vulnerable that are just on that edge, don’t tip over?,” Dr. Early said.
The term is only for one year, as much of the two-year term was eaten up by the special election. She’ll run again, when the time comes, but is focused on the here and now.
“We could still get a lot done in the next year, and can ensure that the structures and processes are in place, so that our community is protected,” she said.
Dr. Early believes that other local governments can learn from how Yolo County handled things with COVID response monies.
“Yolo County, which also received these dollars, has done a great job with engaging with the community. Yolo County had meetings, community engagement meetings, talking about, ‘What are the funds? What are the ideas and the proposals that have come forward?’ and then asking us, ‘Where do you think we should focus our attention? Should it be on self services? Should it be on mental health? Should it be on homelessness, infrastructure or broadband?’”
“These are not criminal justice, these are the categories that they gave us, engaging around what we think we need for our community. It was an amazing process. I know that West Sacramento is going to go to the budget talks, I think, in the next month and I’m hopeful that we will also be able to actively engage with our community, with West Sacramento, to ensure that the decisions that we’re making represent the needs that they have,” Dr. Early continued.
She hopes her historic win moves others to go into public service.
“My hope is that, whether it be African Americans or any communities that may have felt marginalized and not feel like they had a true voice or even opportunity to have a seat at the table, will still be encouraged, will feel inspired, will see the potential of what can be,” she said. “I think that not seeing people who look like you who may have your background, whether it be a working mom, whether it be me as an African American woman, whether it be me as a data scientist in public health, whatever that may be, seeing someone who has all these different facets that you can identify with. I am hopeful that that makes someone say, ‘Yes, I can do that.’”