It’s not like the days when a Willie Brown or a Jesse Unruh could all but take out a lease on the Assembly speaker’s offices in Sacramento. Term limits mean Toni Atkins will have to vacate the premises not much more than two years after she takes over the gavel in June as the Assembly’s next speaker. But she’s nothing if not prepared. Starting in 2000, she served eight years as a popular San Diego City Council member, and in 2005, became the city’s acting mayor after the incumbent resigned. Atkins was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and reelected in 2012. Now she’ll fill one slot in the state’s “Big Five” leadership conclaves in the state Capitol.
What do you hope to do as speaker?
I enjoy working things out, trying to come to a compromise. I don’t give up. I think, being from the South, it’s partly a cultural thing. I have a pretty easygoing manner, but don’t mistake that for the fact that I’m not going to push forward on things.
Although criminal cases have sidelined two senators, voters had given Democrats not just a majority but a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. But they also didn’t want that power abused.
We haven’t done that. California during the recession had to make cuts that affected the quality of people’s lives, so there’s great pressure to restore all of that and spend money. That’s our challenge. I’d rather have this challenge than a $26-billion deficit. We all have things we care deeply about — if we could just pay for this, just include that in what we restore; that’s the budget process we’re in.
The U-T San Diego newspaper wished you well in an editorial and also called on you to stop making California “ground zero” for business problems.
My spouse is a small-business owner, so I am very familiar with the challenges of running a business. We need jobs in this state. We also need to make sure that we are balancing everything in terms of businesses able to support their employees, to run their business and keep costs low — but we have a quality of life that we hope all our residents will have. That balancing point is not easy. Our caucus feels it’s a challenge to us Democrats because the other polarizing side says we’re job killers. I don’t believe that. We’re busy trying to create jobs.
Your other priorities are the drought and education.
The dream of how to rise is based on a decent education. I would not be here had I not had that opportunity. California has been perceived as the Golden State as far as education, but we need to continue that commitment. Proposition 30 has given us a bit of a buffer. Studies say the best way to grow the economy is to make sure your citizens are educated.
Water — we’ve all got to sacrifice and conserve immediately. In the long term, we have to update our water policies. We have to look at how to provide reliability and fairness, affordability and storage. We’re going to have to upgrade our infrastructure, and that possibly will result in a water bond, but we have to make sure we’re using [existing] resources [for] water reliability.
Term limits mean you’re out in 2016. What effect have they had?
Three years ago, I was reading the Economist series on “ungovernable California.” The voters helped change that, with majority budget votes and term limits [that now allow legislators longer terms in one legislative body]. I don’t think [earlier] term limits have been good in the Legislature. You make a decision today knowing you’ll be gone in three years; what’s the impact? [Now] if legislators choose to do 12 years, there’s going to be a higher level of accountability, and more experienced legislators.
Why do politicians get a bad rap?
The art of politics is about making things happen. Beliefs among different groups can be so diverse and polarizing. I think politics can get dirty, but that’s never been my way of doing things. I strive to be compared to people like [former state legislators] Lucy Killea, Karen Bass, Dede Alpert; people may disagree with them on policy, but people [also] say they have integrity, they are ethical, they work hard, they’re respectful of people.
You were on the San Diego City Council when the public employee pension crisis there was revealed. What can the state do to avert such a problem?
We learned a lesson in probably the hardest way possible [in San Diego]. Some things we dealt with — [pension] spiking, airtime — need to be resolved in a fair way [in the state]. I hope we won’t go too far and make our retirees poor, because the system will end up having to pick that [cost] up as well.
As a city politician, did you look at Sacramento and think, those people are making a hash of it?
I think I did. I thought, why don’t they understand what it’s like to run a city council? We all look at others and think, why don’t they get it? At the same time, [after] Christine Kehoe [the San Diego council member for whom Atkins worked] got elected to the Assembly, I realized there were things I could do at the state to support affordable housing and healthcare. But it’s very different, the local level and Sacramento.
You’ll be the Assembly’s first lesbian speaker. Is that a big deal?
It certainly is a big deal to members of the LGBT community. We [will] get to the point where these things are: OK, so what? We’re not there yet. It still matters.
I’m [only] the third woman speaker in California. I’m mindful of how important that is, but I didn’t get selected because I’m a lesbian or a woman. But I’m proud to be part of those groups.
Why are there fewer women in the Legislature now — 25%, compared to 31% about 10 years ago?
One big reason is that women just don’t run for office as often as men do. Unlike men, women usually wait to be asked to run, rather than self-nominating. It never occurred to me when I was a young woman that I might end up as an elected government official; I initially ran for office because my mentor, former state Sen. Christine Kehoe, encouraged me to.
Mentoring is key to getting women to run. I have focused on supporting groups like Emerge California, the California List and Close the Gap CA that encourage and support women candidates statewide, and a San Diego group called Run Women Run.
You grew up in rural Virginia with no indoor plumbing.
I never knew early hardships might bode well for my ability to endure!
I’m from southwestern Virginia — the mountains — and really proud of the Appalachian culture. My parents were working-class people. We carried water from a spring, we had a smokehouse, we had an outhouse. Everything took longer when you have to heat water on a wood stove to put in a tub to bathe. The outhouse — to this day it’s why I’m afraid of spiders, and to this day it’s why [the bathroom] is [one of] my favorite rooms in the house.
I got to represent folks in parts of San Diego who needed the same support and structure that I needed growing up in rural Virginia. When I see constituents with their stories, I see my mom, I see my dad.
Your father was a construction worker — and a moonshiner?
He was. I call it Appalachian logic: My dad made moonshine until my twin sister and I were born. I had two older brothers. My mom said to him one day, you have daughters now, you can’t do this anymore. So he stopped.
You were a women’s clinic administrator before you ran for office. Last year, your bill allowing trained nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants and certified nurse midwives to perform early abortions became law.
I was an early feminist. I grew up understanding there were disparities. My parents both had jobs, but my mom came home and cooked dinner and washed dishes. Then maybe it was coming out as a lesbian.
Having a right to control your choices just resonated with me. I went to a [women’s] clinic one Saturday — I forget why — but I saw all these people picketing. The taunts and chants and trying to physically block women trying to get services really affected me. So I applied for a job and they hired me.
As a San Diegan, is “Anchorman” your favorite movie?
Am I going to get in trouble if I tell you I haven’t seen it? I promise to watch! When I first moved to San Diego [in 1985], all I wanted was to see everything related to “Simon and Simon” [a TV detective show set in San Diego]. The downtown police station, the building their office was in, the Cabrillo Bridge; the first two weeks, I toured the entire city!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a transcript. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @pattmlatimes