San Diego's Toni Atkins is tapped as the first woman leader of the California State Senate

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León announced Thursday that the chamber is set to pick San Diego Sen. Toni Atkins as his successor, making her the first woman and first openly gay legislator to hold the leadership position, a move that is bringing praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.

De León, D-Los Angeles, said in a statement that Atkins, D-San Diego, “will make history and be our Senate's next president pro tempore. I have every confidence she will lead America's most accomplished legislative chamber to even greater heights and build on our extraordinary progress.”

De León said Democratic senators are unified in their support for Atkins and there will be a formal vote in early January before a transition next year. De León leaving stepping down as president to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

If De León’s statement holds true, it will be the second time that Atkins, 55, of South Park, has been the leader of one of the chambers in Sacramento. Elected to the State Assembly in 2010, she served as speaker from May 2014 until March 2016.

Atkins was a San Diego City Council member from 2000 to 2008. She served as acting mayor for several months during the pension crisis that erupted in 2005.

“Today, I am humbled by the trust my colleagues have placed in me, and I intend to earn that trust every day by working tirelessly and inclusively to keep California a place of opportunity for everyone,” Atkins said in a statement.

“Given our national divisions, California’s example is more important than ever – and I look forward to working with our president pro tem and all of our colleagues to ensure that the Senate continues to rise together to meet the challenges faced by the great people we represent,” Atkins’ statement said.

Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, issued a laudatory statement about the announcement and described a cooperative working relationship with her Senate colleague.

“For someone who has achieved historic milestones over her career, I know this one is particularly special. Congratulations to Senator Toni Atkins on becoming the first female Senate President pro Tempore-designate,” Bates said in the statement. “She is a formidable political force who will usher in an era where the leaders of both Senate party caucuses are women.”

Bates added that she hopes Atkins makes addressing misconduct in Sacramento a priority.

“I also hope we can continue to work together to substantially address the issues raised by reports concerning inappropriate behavior. There is no place for harassment in the workplace, including the legislature,” Bates said.

Atkins has the personal experience and temperament to understand and connect with constituents who feel ignored, and work to advance California’s objectives beyond the state, supporters said.

They said it’s fitting that Atkins, a lesbian who grew up in rural Virginia with a coal miner father and seamstress mother, will take on the mantle of resistance to Republican President Donald Trump that has become a hallmark of Sacramento’s Democratic politicians.

“She’ll be leading us against the current devastation that is the White House from the Senate,” Jessica Hayes, chairwoman of the county’s Democratic party, said by telephone.

Equality California, a statewide organization, said that it’s important for children to see Atkins in a leadership position.

“Electing role models like Senator Atkins is important to the LGBTQ community because it sends a clear message to our community across the country, particularly LGBTQ youth, that LGBTQ people can achieve anything," said Rick Zbur, Equality California’s executive director.

It’s significant that senators are set to pick Atkins at a time when gay people in parts of California and the country are still fighting for equal rights, said Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego.

“We must celebrate when a member of our community reaches this milestone,” said Gloria, who is gay, by telephone. “She’s breaking barriers once again.”

Born in southwest Virginia, Atkins grew up without running water and without the convenience of an indoor bathroom. She credits her challenges as a lesbian, and witnessing the environmental impact of mining, for creating an affinity for the downtrodden and the environment.

Atkins is sincere, and her humble background helps make her relatable to people who feel like politicians don’t listen to them, and that government ignores their problem, Gloria said.

“When you talk about people who feel forgotten, and who want to be a part of the dialogue and change, she’s lived that, she understands it,” Gloria said in a telephone interview.

Atkins graduated from Emory & Henry College, where she studied political science and community organizing. She came to San Diego in 1985 to help her sister care for her son. She later met Jennifer LeSar, an affordable housing consultant, whom she married in 2008.

Atkins started in politics in 1993 as a volunteer on Christine Kehoe’s San Diego City Council race. After her candidate won, Atkins joined her staff. Kehoe was later elected to the legislature, and Atkins took her seat on the San Diego City Council in 2000.

Atkins was elected to the Senate in 2016 after incumbent Marty Block, D-San Diego, decided not to seek re-election.

Atkins said that Block had promised to serve only one term, but as the election approached, Block campaigned and he and Atkins even appeared alongside each other at candidates forums. After Atkins received an endorsement from the California Nurses Association, Block announced from the Senate floor that his first term would be his last, clearing a berth for Atkins to go to the Senate.

Atkins has advocated for affordable housing, an issue that’s a problem across the state, through her career.

Only Atkins could have gotten one piece of signature legislation, Senate Bill 2, passed, Gloria said.

“This was not an easy bill,” he said. “It required 2/3 votes in both chambers. I don’t know if any other legislator could have seen it through.”

The bill creates money for affordable housing by tacking filing fees onto property transfers, excluding home sales, and about a third of that money would be put into a fund to build homes for low-income families and migrant workers.

Atkins received some criticism because the bill will fund the industry that employs her wife. She told The San Diego Union-Tribune, “It merely identifies a source of funding and creates a process for allocating the revenue. I have no role in determining who gets the money – either at the state or local level. That is a competitive process, and the decisions will be made by others, as spelled out in the bill.”

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation into law on Sept. 29.

Twitter: @jptstewart

joshua.stewart@sduniontribune.com

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