Capitol Journal: In her historic rise to California Senate leader, Toni Atkins brings hope for a calmer era in the Capitol

State Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) smiles up at the Senate gallery after being sworn in as the new Senate president pro tem Wednesday. She replaces former Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), left. In the center is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

After 168 years of statehood, the California Senate finally agreed to be led by a woman.

But, after all, women have only been allowed to vote in California for 107 years.

“It’s the first time — and it’s about time,” Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) told legislators and VIP guests after being sworn in Wednesday as the new leader by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Atkins, 55, also became the first legislator who has come out as gay to be elected Senate president pro tem.

“We must ensure that every person living in California — no matter how they look, who they love or where their parents were born — can climb life’s ladder, live out loud and be whoever they want to be without being demeaned, downsized or discriminated against,” she said.


There was a time not so long ago when LGBTQ politicians felt compelled to hide who they were, fearing voter rejection. A half-century ago, new Gov. Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff was forced to resign when colleagues learned he was gay and engineered a coup. In the 1990s, the Assembly engaged in a few torturous, embarrassing debates over gay rights, some of the rhetoric unprintable.

But by 2014, cultural attitudes had shifted dramatically. Atkins was elected Assembly speaker and walked down the chamber’s center aisle hand in hand with her spouse en route to being sworn in. Afterward the couple kissed at the podium in front of news cameras. That was an eye-opener. If it happened Wednesday, no one seemed to notice.

Atkins was only the third woman elected Assembly speaker.

What did she learn as speaker that will help her as Senate leader? “The focus on colleagues is really important,” she told me. “It really takes consensus to get things done.

“I’ve learned a little more patience. I think I’m calmer. I feel self-confidence that I may know what I’m doing. We’ll see. And I feel stronger about following my own instincts.”

California still hasn’t elected a woman governor. Many other states have, so we’re not always as cutting-edge as we claim.

Atkins did make some other history Wednesday. She became the first former Assembly speaker in 146 years to be elected Senate leader.


That says a lot about Atkins’ pleasant, nonthreatening personality. Traditionally, there has been so much animosity between the Senate and Assembly, no former speaker could be elected by senators to be their leader. But she gets along with almost everyone.

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“I don’t care at all about the old fights and frictions,” she said in her speech. “I know our houses have some differences: red carpet versus green….”

She earlier told me that one of her top priorities is to heal the wounds between the two houses. She has “great respect” for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), Atkins said. “I think we can do this differently.”

That feeling of friendship and respect toward Rendon might seem extraordinary to many legislative watchers since the speaker killed Atkins’ big state-run, single-payer health insurance bill last year. He called it “woefully incomplete,” which it unquestionably was.

The Senate-passed bill included no financing plan, but would have cost an astronomical $400 billion a year. It envisioned the Trump administration turning over all federal Medicare and Medicaid money to the state. Dream on.


Atkins indicated to me she isn’t giving up on the cause of universal healthcare, but realizes that a state-run, single-payer plan isn’t achievable in the short term. She’ll try to take incremental steps.

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“Some of the issues around this are very polarizing,” she said. “It’s polarizing within the Democratic caucus.”

Like most people, especially political leaders, Atkins was strongly influenced by her upbringing. She spent her early years in a little four-room house in rural southern Virginia with no indoor plumbing and a rain barrel to collect water. The bathroom was an outhouse. They cooked on a wood stove. Her father was a coal and lead miner, her mother a seamstress.

“We grew up incredibly poor,” she once told me. “I didn’t go to a dentist until I was 24 years old. And I had buck teeth….

“But despite the problems of poverty, I knew my parents loved me.”

She was the first of her family to graduate from college, a small liberal arts school in Virginia, Emory and Henry. She paid for college with grants, scholarships and loans.

After college, she moved to San Diego to care for her pregnant twin sister, whose Navy husband was shipping out. “I’d always wanted to live in California.”

She helped run a women’s health center, became a policy analyst for a San Diego City Council member and eventually was elected to the council, then the Assembly.


Not surprisingly, given Atkins’ childhood, her top priority in the Legislature has been affordable housing. Last year, after a long struggle, she pushed through a bill to impose a $75 fee on many real estate documents. It’s expected to raise $250 million annually to pay for affordable housing construction.

Except for the fact they both grew up in poverty, Atkins is a polar opposite of her predecessor, the termed out Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

De León can be charming, too, but he’s instinctively more aggressive and outspoken, and sometimes grating. Atkins has a soft demeanor, but is tough inside. In that way, she’s more like Speaker Rendon.

It’ll be a new era at the Capitol. Maybe a calmer one.

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