Politics

As speakership ends, Toni Atkins reflects: 'This has been an incredible ride'

After nearly two years, Toni Atkins' tenure as Assembly Speaker is winding to a close. The San Diego Democrat — who will be termed out of the Assembly this November and is running for a state Senate seat — will hand over the reins to incoming Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) on March 7.

Atkins sat down with The Times for an exit interview to discuss the highs and lows of the leadership post.

The rigors of the job

It's not all backroom bargaining. Atkins said she was most surprised by the "housekeeping" that the job entailed: budgeting for member offices, requests for excused absences.

"It was busy," she said. "You have to pay attention. You have your own legislative package, but you have to pay attention to how all the bills are moving through the house. You have to pay attention to the relationship between the legislation coming from the Senate, going to the Senate. It's nonstop. Members ask for help with their bills. The requests from reporters on everything — stuff you would never think of.... You have to be out there on all kinds of issues that you ordinarily would not have to give too much thought to."

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"Sometimes it feels like I've been doing this for a very short time," she added. "And other times it feels like, 'Wow, I feel like I've been doing this forever.' And I'm tired. It wears you out."

The accomplishments

Atkins rattled off a laundry list of proud moments in office, including securing a tax credit for the working poor in last year's budget and helping negotiate tax subsidies for the film industry and for Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the stealth bomber.

She also pointed to her work on the $7.5-billion water bond, which was approved by voters in 2014. The measure was backed by nearly all legislators across the state, despite the geographic tensions that often arise with water issues.

"I was in the middle of all that and I loved it," she said. "Because we made it happen and we didn't leave anybody behind.... The initial discussion was how many votes to do we need. And I said that's not going to do it for me. I don't feel like leaving anybody behind."

Working with Jerry Brown

Atkins said working with the governor was among the job's highlights.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leader Kevin De León. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

"We come from very different worlds," she said. "But I find him to be very thoughtful."

Atkins, who hailed from a hardscrabble Appalachian upbringing in rural Virginia, said she would point to her own background in budget negotiations to advocate for more spending on the poor.

"If you're trying to leverage him, forget it. He's been doing this a while," she said. "You really have to make your case with him. And I could fall back on my story and be able to use personal experience to say, 'But governor ...' And he listens. He does listen."

Maneuvering around the assisted death measure

Atkins noted she was dinged by The Times' editorial board, in part for allowing last year’s assisted death legislation to stall in her house. The measure was ultimately revived in a special legislative session on healthcare, a controversial procedural move that she said reflected political necessity.

"I like to be objective. I like to be fair," she said. "But I also work in the world of politics. And if you don't take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself politically ... I would say the death with dignity [bill] was one of those opportunities where I believed in the issue but I knew it was not necessarily a partisan issue, it was a personal issue with everybody. I used politics to keep the issue going."

The clash over the climate change legislation

Perhaps the fiercest legislative battle in her tenure was over an ambitious climate change bill backed by Brown and Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). Atkins said she was on board for the entire measure — which included doubling energy efficiency and increasing how much electricity in the state was generated from renewable sources. But a sizable number of Assembly Democrats balked at a third provision to slash oil use in half.

That component was dropped in order for SB 350 to become law. Brown and de León decried the influence of the oil industry, and Atkins faced criticism for the insurrection within her caucus.

"I saw we were going to have real problems. And then a large number of caucus members came to me — you can say, I was forced by my caucus or you could say I stood up for my caucus and made sure the process allowed them to deal with their concerns. And we got to a place we needed to go at the end of the day."

"As painful as it felt, I thought it was a fair process for my caucus," she added. "And we still went to Paris [for the UN climate conference in December] as 'incredible California,' a nation-state. We were so well-received there."

The fracas at the Coastal Commission

Atkins was a vocal opponent of the firing of Coastal Commission executive director Charles Lester. The night of his firing she sent out an unusually frank message on Twitter expressing distress at the commission's action, particularly that of Mark Vargas, whom she reappointed to the post last year.

"Eleven hundred miles of coastline being protected is a values issue for me," she said. "I didn't grow up near the ocean. The fact that I live in a coastal community now means a lot to me. I didn't see the ocean until I was — I might have been 22 years old.... And I have a lot of friends who are developers. That doesn't mean I think the coastline should be overdeveloped."

Closing thoughts

In all, Atkins struck a tone that was equally wistful and exhausted.

"This has been an incredible ride," she said. "Are you kidding? I'm a kid from Appalachia who grew up in a house with no running water. I get to negotiate with the most iconic governor in the United States."

"Every one of the members here, whether I agree with them or not, they're here for a reason," she continued. "They're representing citizens and constituents. And I get to make that happen. There's nothing like it. I feel incredibly fortunate I get to do this. I'm tired. And I'm going to be very thrilled to hand this over to Anthony Rendon."

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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