Have just one conversation with Democrat Toni Atkins and her southern twang lets you know she’s not originally from California. Atkins was born in Virginia. Her father was a coal miner, her mother a seamstress and the family lived in poverty.
Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber says that early experience equipped Atkins to deal with some of California’s toughest problems.
“What greater champion do we have to talk about poverty than a child born in the mountains of Virginia?" she asks. "Looking through the clap-boards of a house without the resources many of us take for granted. Who understands poverty, not only just because you are poor, but the devastating effect that it can have on your life if there’s not adequate intervention.”
The challenges her parents faced are often ones Atkins seeks to address in the legislature.
“People seem to think that my early life was hard," she says. "Their lives were much harder and way too short, having lived the hard lives of blue collar workers without health coverage, lower wages than they deserved, no sick leave, and certainly, sub-standard housing.”
Atkins says her personal priority for her term as Speaker will be to work for more affordable housing in California. She takes over as state political leaders consider how to deal with a rare budget surplus. Atkins says she supports the Governor’s rainy day fund measure. But she says some additional spending may be needed.
“At the same time that we are responsible, that we establish those reserves and pay down our debt, we need to realize that there are some services and programs that we need to reinvest in," she says. "It’s about reinvesting in our human capital.”
Atkins acknowledges her position may cause some tension with Brown. But she says tension is needed to get the best deal possible.
Atkins will likely serve as Speaker for about two years. She is termed out of the Assembly at the end of 2016.