Influential Women

California Speaker Toni Atkins Aims to Bring People Together

Atkins accompanies California Gov. Jerry Brown, center, and Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon to a news conference to announce emergency drought legislation. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images File Photo)

Just a few seconds after Toni Atkins was sworn in as California Assembly speaker in May 2014, she turned to the woman standing next to her, planted a kiss on her lips and said, “Thank you.”

That woman was her wife, Jennifer LeSar, and Atkins later admitted that images of the kiss “probably shocked a lot of people.” Less shocking is how Atkins, a coal miner’s daughter who grew up with a wood stove for cooking and an outhouse, rose to become the most powerful woman in California state government.

That power has an expiration date. Because of term limits, Atkins, a Democrat who represents San Diego, will vacate her speakership March 7, though she will remain in the Assembly until December. She is now focused on a run for a Senate seat that she is widely expected to win now that the Democratic incumbent has bowed out of the race. And she does not rule out a future run for governor, arguing in an interview with CQ Roll Call that when “opportunities come your way, you take them when you can.”
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In her nearly two years on the job, Atkins,  53 — the first openly lesbian leader of the Assembly — has notched several accomplishments, including negotiating a voter-approved $7.5 billion water bond, a tax credit benefiting low-income families, new medical marijuana laws) and a bill that pushes renewable energy.  “She leads from a place of fairness and wants to bring as many people together as possible,” Kristin Olsen, the Republican leader of the Assembly, told The San Diego Union-Tribune last year. Atkins said one of her objectives as speaker was to get buy-in from as many legislators as possible while empowering committee chairs with more responsibility.  But some observers have found fault with that style, pointing to some failed measures in 2015, including desperately needed transportation funding and a package on affordable housing, along with a major climate bill component that would target a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2030.  “Atkins’ emphasis on empowerment meant she didn’t do enough” to lead her caucus, The Los Angeles Times wrote in a legislative scorecard last October. (They gave her a C+.)  Atkins dismisses that criticism, saying, “It’s going to be a little more contentious and it’s going to take a little longer, but it’s going to be worth it.” Still, she acknowledged that her status as a short-termer likely hamstrung her efforts to control her caucus. “People knew they could wait me out,” she said. Atkins was born in Wythe County, Va., and grew up poor in a mountain town called Max Meadows before moving to Roanoke when she was 7. Her family had no health insurance and relied on free clinics. After graduating college, where she came out as a lesbian, Atkins moved to San Diego to help care for her twin sister’s newborn son. It was there that she began work as director of a women’s clinic. Before she even started working at Womancare, she recalls being blocked from entering the building by abortion protesters. “It really just pissed me off,” she said.  She later went to work for Christine Kehoe, the first openly gay elected official in San Diego history. When Kehoe decided to make a run at the state legislature, she convinced Atkins to run to replace her on the city council. When Kehoe moved to the Senate, Atkins eventually took her seat in the Assembly. Atkins worries about the decline in women participating in state government — women make up only 25 percent of the California legislature (the national average is 24 percent). “I do think women need to be asked,” she said.  Indeed, Atkins notes that she asked now-Assembly Budget Chairman Shirley Webber to run for her current seat.  When it comes to how her sexual orientation plays out in the political realm, she thinks matters have improved dramatically in the past few years — one need only note that Atkins’ predecessor, John Perez, as speaker was an openly gay Hispanic man. But she still feels the need to prove herself — “you have to be better than your opponent. It’s not enough to be equal,” she says.  On her desk in the Capitol, Atkins has a 2009 cartoon from the Houston Chronicle with the title “The Gay Agenda, REVEALED” — it shows then-newly elected Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian, carting in boxes bearing labels like “transportation,” “economy” and  “pensions.” Atkins was so delighted by the cartoon she got Parker to sign it. Jonathan Miller reports on budget and tax policy for CQ’s State News team. Contact him atjonmiller@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @jonathan_miller.

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