The California Senate will swear in its first ever female leader Wednesday — and its first openly gay leader. San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins takes the oath as Senate President pro Tempore at a unique moment for the state.
It isn’t just that Atkins is taking over as California battles President Trump on immigration, climate change and other hot issues. Her inauguration comes as the #MeToo movement continues to rock the state Capitol.
“I am incredibly mindful of this moment in time,” Atkins told Capital Public Radio last week in an interview in the Senate office she will vacate for the grander pro Tem's office in the historic part of the Capitol building.
Three lawmakers have resigned amid public allegations of sexual harassment, and there are sharp concerns over how the Legislature handles complaints and investigations.
Atkins previously served two years as speaker of the Assembly and acknowledges she would “probably” have made some different decisions today on the personnel matters that crossed her desk back then.
“We’re in a different time, and a different motivation, and a different awareness, that would give me – as the third woman speaker – the ability to have maybe approached it differently,“ she said.
Atkins said the backlash against Anita Hill, who came forward to accuse then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, caused women whose lives, families and careers were at stake, to run for cover.
“What they learned from Anita Hill was, don’t speak up. And that’s the culture and the society that we have lived in, until women stepped forward and said, we’ve had enough“ — a nod to the We Said Enough letter signed by nearly 150 women last year that launched the #MeToo movement at the state Capitol.
“We’re in a different time, and a different motivation, and a different awareness, that would give me – as the third woman speaker – the ability to have maybe approached it differently,“ Atkins said. “Do I think I get to approach it differently now, as I become the pro Tem? Yeah, I do. But that’s because there has been a shake-up that has allowed this opportunity.“
Atkins co-authored the single-payer health care bill that stalled in the Assembly last year after passing the Senate. She says it’s unlikely California will move to a single-payer system in the short term. So she backs changes to the current insurance system that would increase coverage and affordability:
“If there are pieces of legislation that get us closer to providing better health care at reasonable prices, extending it to people who are residents of CA who may not be here legally, I want to support that.”
Other priorities for Atkins include housing affordability, disaster preparedness, the drought and the economy.
Atkins replaces outgoing pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who’s termed out this year and is running for the U.S. Senate.