The state Assembly will now be led with a Southern twang, after Appalachian-born
In an afternoon ceremony in the Assembly chambers, complete with a gospel choir, she was sworn in by Rep.
Atkins replaces John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), a forceful former labor organizer who has been speaker since 2010 and, facing term limits this year, is running for state controller.
Saying her goal was to "ensure the California dream is alive and well," Atkins laid out an agenda focused on building affordable housing, increasing enrollment in the state's higher education systems and restoring more services cut during the state's recent budget woes.
Before being sworn in, Atkins was praised by colleagues who took turns lauding her compassion — rooted in a hardscrabble upbringing — and an even-keeled approach to politics.
"Ms. Atkins' leadership is rooted in a deep empathy for those who have the least and understands that politics and policies are a means to an end," Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park) said. "I have no doubt that Ms. Atkins will be a speaker for all of California … because her story is our story."
Her goals as speaker will be squeezed into a truncated time frame; her tenure will be capped by term limits in 2016. And she will have to shepherd a large and ideologically diverse Democratic caucus, many of whose members are first-term lawmakers.
But she brings a measure of continuity to the Assembly. She had been Pérez's top deputy, Assembly majority floor leader, for the last two years.
Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) said Atkins offers steadiness and sensibility as budget negotiations begin in earnest and scores of bills move through the Legislature.
"I don't think she's going to do anything rash that's going to upset the house during this critical time," Eggman said. "Toni is one that has been a lot more substance than flash, and sometimes people can underestimate that."
Atkins hails from southwestern Virginia, daughter of a coal miner father and seamstress mother. It was a strapped upbringing, in a family with no health insurance and, in her early years, a home with no indoor plumbing.
Cobbling together grants, scholarships and loans, she graduated with a degree in political science from Emory & Henry College in Virginia. She then headed west to San Diego, where she worked in community health clinics before crossing over to politics. She served eight years on San Diego's City Council and was elected to the Assembly in 2010.
Atkins is the first San Diegan, and the first lesbian, to be speaker, succeeding the first openly gay lawmaker — Pérez — to hold the post.
In a state where voters just six years ago approved an initiative banning gay marriage, which was later overturned by the courts, that's "a big deal symbolically," San Jose State political scientist Larry Gerston said.
Eggman described Atkins as having "gentle Southern charm," a trait also noted by Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare.
While Pérez had a "commanding presence," Conway said, the new speaker had "more of a welcoming presence."
Pérez cautioned those who would mistake Atkins' affability for weakness.
"It's often true of women leaders — people mistake difference in tone for difference in strength," Pérez said. "She may have sometimes a soft tone, but she is not a soft leader."
The two speakers were sworn in under vastly different circumstances. In November 2010, seven months after Pérez was inaugurated, the state was facing a $24.5-billion budget deficit. Now the state's finances have stabilized and officials have predicted a multibillion-dollar surplus.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said lawmakers under Pérez's leadership deserve some credit for the turnaround. And she said voters' approval was evident when the Democrats gained seats in the Assembly in the 2010 elections and again in 2012, when voters handed them a powerful two-thirds majority.
Pérez "is a brilliant campaign tactician and strategist," Skinner said. "But it was also because what we were doing resonated, or the voters wouldn't have gone in that direction."
The Democrats' overwhelming dominance means that pitched political and policy battles are sometimes waged between members of the same party.
"We have a huge tent, which is exciting," Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said. "It also means we have a lot of differences of opinion."
More than half of the Democratic caucus are freshmen, elected under new, expanded term limits under which they can serve up to 12 years. Several first-year lawmakers had vied for the leadership post against Atkins, who can be a bridge from the old term limits to the new.
"She had been through some of the tough fiscal challenges of the state. The new freshman class had not," Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) said. "It's a good opportunity for us to learn from someone like her."