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, said Atkins' 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," Atkins said. "We have work to do to restore faith in the voters."