“My journey in politics began the second I was born,” says California State Assemblywoman Autumn Burke.
Burke, 45, grew up in an environment very familiar to politics. Her mother, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, won a seat in the U.S. House in 1966, becoming the first African American woman elected to the California assembly and later became the first woman and African American on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Burke’s father, Dr. William Burke, is best known as the founder and former long-time president of the city of Los Angeles Marathon, and Chairman of the AQMD Governing Board.
Today, Assemblywoman Burke has made her own name in California politics and is chair of the Revenue and Taxation Committee.
But Burke didn’t always plan to follow in her mother’s footsteps towards the Capitol office. Before running for her first term in 2014, she was a small business owner dealing with real estate and did private consulting for private industry. She hadn’t considered running until she started working as a consultant for a solar company. At the time, CA Sen. Steven Bradford wrote a bill that dealt with low-income solar energy and the solar company she worked with got involved.
“As I started to work with his office, I found that I had a lot more interest in legislation than I had ever realized before,” says Burke. “I found out that he [Sen. Bradford] was termed out early. So, I ended up running for his seat.”
Now serving her second term, Assemblywoman Burke has been writing legislation to address the nation’s flawed access to resources like reproductive health, adequate and affordable healthcare and environmental justice. Burke has invested much of her work in an initiative to end childhood poverty and her influence towards this cause is visible in Governor Newsom’s budget which includes proposals to directly address child poverty and support families in breaking the cycle of poverty through work and education, including a grant increase for the lowest income families served by the CalWORKs program.
With California having the highest rate of childhood poverty, it’s no surprise that legislators would feel compelled to get involved. In a state with the 5th largest economy in the world, the initial question is, “How did we get here?” Assemblywoman Burke says there are too many reasons to list.
“I think one of the great missteps we’ve made in the state of California is that we have forgotten that 70 percent of students who enter into high school never see community college or a four-year university,” says Burke. “We have forgotten about those young men and women who are intelligent and capable and who need a path – not a path to a minimum wage job, but to a career.”
In 2016, Burke was instrumental in passing her bill AB 1520 to end childhood poverty. Her office says the bill “directed the convening of a taskforce comprising a statewide coalition of child welfare organizations, health and human services advocates and local elected officials to examine the public economic, educational, social services, healthcare and human services programs in California.”
Since its passing, Burke says there haven’t been many setbacks or struggles.
“We have since had 24 bills from the End Childhood Poverty Taskforce recommendation presented. Twenty-two have made them out of appropriations, which is unheard of,” says Burke. “Last week, we had a massive win with the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.”
That major victory came last week for Burke when the CA Assembly passed her bill, AB 91 which will bring in more than 1 billion dollars in revenue a year. The bill conforms parts of the state’s tax code with federal law under President Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which Congress passed in 2017.
“Small business will see more than 280 million dollars in relief as a result of AB 91. So, that was really a win-win for me, and for us,” says Burke.
This expansion means more funding for programs that address the issues that Assemblywoman Burke cares about most. Burke recently helped AB 147 get passed, which will require online and out-of-state retailers like eBay to charge a sales tax. Burke says the passing of this bill means 1.7 billion dollars of tax revenue – an influx that will help her accomplish her goals.
“We have 2 million children living in poverty in the state of California,” says Burke. “We’re trying to reduce that by 50 percent.”
To Burke, the urgency of this issue is obvious. “We live in the state of California with the 5th largest economy in the world and how do we say that if we have 2 million children living in poverty?” says Burke. Beyond the obvious concern with this, Burke says it is her personal journey of motherhood that ignites her passion for the cause.
“When I decided to run, I was struggling to have a baby. Part of my inspiration to run was the fact that I would let that go and the children of the state of California would become my kids,” says Burke.
The resolve to be a mother to the children of California was strengthened when she had her own child. Now, as a mother, her inspiration to be a positive influence for children is not only to be a good example that they see, but to be a good example of their everyday lives.
It was the same experience of becoming a mother that influenced Burke to work on bills such as AB 2682, which gives certified nurse midwives a larger role in labor and delivery.
“It initially became important to me because my child’s care was done by a nurse midwife. I had never heard of it before and I had to Google it,” says Burke whose daughter was born via surrogate.
When it comes to the appalling disproportionate rates of birth mortality for Black women in the U.S., Assemblywoman Burke says there is a tremendous access problem and prenatal care is the worst of those problems.
“African American women, no matter what their economic background, are still receiving less prenatal care than the average Caucasian woman. Access and information are so important to our community and to women in general.”
The bill, AB 2682, would diminish the requirement of a physician’s supervision during labor and delivery. AB 2682 has been on the floor four times but never passed Senate. The bill isn’t up this year but last year it made it to the assembly floor for the first time.
“Midwifery really is a path towards making sure all women in the state of California have access to great women who are educated and who take time and energy in a different sort of manner with their patients. I’ve always been incredibly proud of the midwives and the work I do with them,” says Burke.
This is the essence of her passion and work as an assemblymember. Burke describes the job duty as “state legislation with home in mind.”
Right now, the assemblywoman is working on passing legislation like AB 740 which is a wildfire victim fund she was compelled to support after visiting the devastating sites of the Paradise fire.
“My number one goal right now is to see that the childhood poverty package sees completion and that those bills are signed by the governor,” Burke says.
The legislation Assemblywoman Burke is working on is extensive, like the bill that is pushing for funding of the Challenger Memorial Youth Center facility which provides extensive rehabilitation and training for delinquent juveniles.
At the center of all the goals and legislation she is working on, is Assemblywoman Burke’s political philosophy: Access for all.
“The goal of my district is to see that everything that comes through this office is through the lens of access. So, that means the entire district sees access to healthcare, the entire district sees access to environmental justice, and to education,” says Burke.
“Not one side of my district doesn’t have an opportunity that the other has, and that has been the focal point of everything we’ve done from the day I walked into my office.”