With a gospel choir’s serenade and countless references to Appalachia, the Assembly inaugurated Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, as its new Speaker on Monday.
Atkins took the oath of office with wife Jennifer LeSar at her side. The swearing-in was administered by former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, now a congresswoman.
Addressing the chamber after being sworn in, Atkins acknowledged that “some days it’s hard to remember to be dreamers” in the midst of the legislative grind.
“Transition brings us the opportunity to reassess, take stock, to recommit ourselves to a higher purpose,” she said.
In a nod to current budget negotiations, she urged those present to consider the dreams of those most affected by the previous recession in crafting a spending plan in the state’s newly stabilized fiscal outlook.
“Their dreams were put on hold, or spread out over a longer time frame. Sadly, I think some even relinquished their dreams,” she said. “We can’t let that happen, we can’t let their dreams die. Trust me, in so many ways that would be bad for California.”
In attendance were a bevy of present and former California officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and a number of former Assembly speakers, including Karen Bass, Cruz Bustamante and Fabian Nunez.
Many speakers took note of the new leader’s Southern twang and humble upbringing in southwestern Virginia. Atkins’ father was a coal miner and her mother a seamstress; her childhood home had no indoor plumbing or running water.
“Although she might be from Appalachia, she is very much like the rest of us,” said Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles).
“Ms. Atkins’ leadership is rooted in a deep empathy for those who have the least, and she knows that politics and policy are a means to an end, not an end to itself,” he added.
Atkins, in her post-oath address, also spoke about her childhood, recognizing her parents, now deceased.
“By now you’ve heard, too many times, I think, my personal story, and people seem to think my early life was hard,” she said. “Their lives were much harder -- and way too short -- having lived the hard lives of blue-collar workers without health coverage, lower wages than they deserved, no sick leave and certainly substandard housing.”
Housing is an issue that Atkins has been particularly active about, and she made clear it will remain a topic close to her heart.
“If I have a personal priority, it is reducing homelessness and making sure we have affordable housing, not just to house the homeless but for all working Californians,” Atkins said. Other policy priorities laid out in her speech included increasing Medi-Cal reimbursement rates for doctors and expanding early childhood education programs.
The Assembly elected Atkins, 51, to the post -- one of the most powerful in state politics -- in March. She is the first Assembly member from San Diego to ascend to the speakership. She is also the first lesbian to serve as California’s speaker. She replaces the first openly gay Assembly speaker, Democrat John A. Pérez of Los Angeles, who is running for state controller.
Atkins moved to San Diego at age 23 after graduating from college and worked in community health clinics before moving into politics. She served eight years on San Diego’s City Council, where she wrote city’s “living wage” ordinance before joining the Legislature.
She was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and has served as majority floor leader since 2012. Atkins has been a vocal supporter of abortion rights and also has offered legislation on low-income housing. Last year, the governor signed her bill allowing non-physicians, such as nurse practitioners, to perform abortions.
She will be termed out of office in 2016.