California Has a New Assembly Speaker: Toni Atkins

by | May 13, 2014 AT 2:30 PM

By Jeremy B. White

In a historic transfer of power, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins on Monday became the first openly gay woman to ascend to the head of the California Assembly.

The inauguration filled the California Assembly chambers with an audience that included a roster of past legislative leaders, statewide officials and Gov. Jerry Brown. Former Speaker Karen Bass, now a member of Congress, administered the oath to Atkins. The new speaker was chosen by her fellow Democrats in January and formally elected in March.

In her first remarks as speaker, Atkins praised California's gradual return to fiscal stability, urged more investment in education and pledged to bolster California's business climate. She won applause for lauding the enrollment success of Covered California, the state's new health insurance exchange, and reiterated her commitment to two longtime goals.

"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.

And with budget talks set to get underway, she touched on fiscal restraint but also talked about the need to assist California's teeming ranks of low-income residents.

"We must work to ensure stability, and that includes an adequate reserve for those rainy days when the economy again takes a downward dive," Atkins said, "and yet we must also realize that where we have our greatest challenge is at the same time expanding opportunity and lifting up the most vulnerable, who have suffered a great deal and need us not to forget them now. While we have made difficult decisions during the recession, they have been holding on with white knuckles."

Atkins, who is 51, will also be the first Assembly speaker from San Diego since the Legislature became a full-time institution. After a working-class childhood in rural Virginia, Atkins moved to San Diego and began her rise through politics with a focus on affordable housing and reproductive rights. She served on the San Diego City Council and briefly served as the city's interim mayor before winning a seat in the Assembly in 2010, building a reputation as a diligent worker.

"I'm still amazed at her endless capacity to get the job done," former Sen. Christine Kehoe, Atkins' mentor and former boss, said in introductory remarks. As head of the Assembly Democrats, Atkins will now guide a huge and ideologically diverse caucus.

She assumes power a day before a crucial moment in the budget process: Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday releasing his revised May budget, the document that will serve as a starting point for negotiations. But Atkins has been in the loop on party priorities and strategy given her leadership role -- she served as majority floor leader -- and she has received regular budget briefings since her colleagues chose her as the next speaker earlier this year.

"This year, we look forward to a surplus," Atkins told reporters after the inauguration proceedings. "At the same time that we are responsible, that we establish those reserves and pay down our debts, we need to realize that there are some services and programs that we need to reinvest in."

The significance of Atkins being the first lesbian speaker was referenced multiple times during the ceremony. Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, told Atkins that young Californians struggling with their sexuality "will see in you hope and possibility."

"The two of you are helping us make history today," Gordon said to Atkins and her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, who sat beside Atkins and beamed.

"Some have said this will be a transitional speakership," Gordon added, alluding to the narrative that members chose Atkins, who can only serve through 2016 because of term limits, to give freshman contenders more time to develop. "I don't believe that. I believe it will be a transformational speakership." Handing Atkins the baton is Assemblyman John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, who is compelled by term limits to leave the Legislature at the end of the year. He is running for state controller.

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