San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins, whose Appalachian roots have given her a powerful affinity for the plight of the working poor, was sworn in Monday as the 69th speaker of the state Assembly.
Atkins assumes the reins of the 80-member chamber amid negotiations over a nearly $107 billion state budget and an $11 billion water bond that all sides want to change before it goes to a statewide vote in November. She praised the state's efforts to retain businesses and a recent deal brokered by the governor and legislative leaders to revamp a rainy day fund to save money and pay down debt.
At the same time, the native of Virginia's poor mountain region also implored lawmakers to invest in education and opportunity for poor and lower-income Californians. That is expected to cause tension in budget negotiations as lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown weigh restoring social services and paying down debt.
"We cannot forget that too many Californians have not made it out of the recession," Atkins said in remarks after her swearing-in. "They've been holding on with white knuckles, with so much at stake. Their dreams have been put on hold."
She identified affordable housing and ending homelessness as top personal priorities.
Atkins, 51, becomes the first open lesbian to lead a California legislative chamber and succeeds Los Angeles Democrat John Perez, who was the first openly gay lawmaker in the role. She was sworn in by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, the first Democratic woman to lead the California Assembly, during a ceremony that was attended by the governor and Atkins' wife, Jennifer LeSar, who consults on affordable housing.
In remarks on the floor before the swearing-in, Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, saidAtkins' rise to one of the most powerful positions in state government would be an inspiration.
"There are many in the state today who are struggling to come to grips with their sexual orientations," he said. "They will see in you hope and possibility."
Atkins was elected to the Assembly in 2010 after serving on San Diego's city council and will be termed out in two years. Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare issued a statement seeking bipartisan cooperation and noting that Atkins' rise marks the first time a California legislative body had two female leaders.
Atkins takes office in a time when two Democratic state senators face federal corruption charges, prompting a flurry of reform legislation including a partial fundraising blackout during the legislative session and whistleblower protection for staff.
Atkins would not say in a press conference if she supports introducing similar rules in the Assembly, as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has called for in the Senate. She said public financing of campaigns lacks support and called on lawmakers to follow existing laws.
"How to take money out of politics? I am not a magician, and this is not a simple task," Atkinssaid. "We have work to do to restore faith in the voters."
The first woman to serve as Assembly Speaker
The first woman to serve as the Speaker of the Assembly was Doris Allen, and she wasn't in the position long. KPCC's Nick Roman interviewed Dan Walters of the "Sacramento Bee" who was there when she was sworn in back in the 1990s.
Nick Roman: Start off by telling us who was Doris Allen?
Dan Walters: Doris Allen was a republican from Orange County — a little bit of a maverick within her own caucus. In those days the Republicans were almost all male. She was one of the very few Republican women in the legislature and was something of an odd person out in many respects.
NR: How did she become Assembly Speaker?
DW: Republicans gained, on paper anyway, a one-seat majority in the state Assembly in the 1994 election. ... [After a speaker was recalled,] Willie Brown turned to Dorris Allen. She served as speaker for 105 days, and she was later recalled.
NR: She was only Assembly Speaker for about three months before resigning. What happened?
DW: She was kind of unhappy with her colleagues because the Republican party had supported another person, a man, for a state senate seat in a special election over her, and it made her mad. So when Willie came knocking on the door, she was receptive to doing that.
NR: What became of her after she was recalled?
DW: She was kind of a tragic case. She gave up on politics and moved to Colorado and actually died a few years later of cancer.