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  • Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, speaks before Gov. Jerry Brown delivers the 2014 State of the State address on Wednesday. Her party has chosen her to be the next Assembly speaker.

  • Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, has the support of the Democratic caucus to succeed John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, as speaker. Before her election to the Assembly, Atkins served on the San Diego City Council, with several months as interim mayor.

  • Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Incoming Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins comes from humble roots in Virginia coal country.

Incoming Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins brings reputation as a grinder

Published: Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am

Before San Diego became Assemblywoman Toni Atkins’ home, before it incubated a political career that has Atkins on the verge of leading the California Assembly, the city was a setting for stories a Virginia coal miner told his daughters.

Listen closely when Atkins speaks, and you can hear the vestiges of an accent shaped by her childhood in rural southwestern Virginia. Her father, a lead and coal miner, would recount being stationed in “a sleepy little town called San Diego” during World War II, Atkins recalled.

California was then a distant prospect for Atkins, a daughter of working-class parents who grew up bathing in a tub, drawing water from a rain barrel and relieving herself in an outhouse. Health insurance was an unobtainable luxury.

“I grew up in a house with no running water,” Atkins said. “My mother cooked on a wood stove, and that wasn’t to get back to nature. It was where we lived.”

She has come a long way since. Assembly Democrats announced on Wednesday that they would unanimously back Atkins, ending months of jockeying for the speakership. The selection ensures that the next speaker will be drawn from the existing leadership ranks – Atkins has served as majority floor leader, helping the procedural machinery of the body run – rather than from the huge class of freshman lawmakers.

“It’s continuity, and I think that’s what everyone wanted,” said first-term Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. “There’s no question this will be a seamless transition.”

That promised continuity does not please everyone. Tony Krvaric, chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, said Atkins will simply perpetuate Democratic dominance in Sacramento.

“She fits right in, which is why she’s risen through the ranks,” Krvaric said. “She’s not a taxpayer advocate.”

But by most accounts, Atkins has not acquired the bluster in which some elected officials deal. In a world of outsized egos and blazing ambition, Atkins has built a reputation as a pragmatist.

“I’m all about solutions,” Atkins said during an interview in her office. “I’m really about working with people to negotiate, compromise, put your concerns on the table and let’s see how we can get there.”

Not that people discount Atkins’ liberal credentials – she is a major supporter of gay rights, of affordable housing and of reproductive health. Last session she carried a bill that expanded access to certain types of early abortions, cutting against a national trend of statehouses tightening abortion restrictions.

But those who have worked with Atkins during her rise through San Diego and Sacramento politics consistently describe a diligent worker with a knack for compromise and an affinity for delving into policy details.

“She’s certainly an unabashed progressive Democrat,” said Michael Zucchet, a former colleague on the San Diego City Council, “but she always had a good relationship with the Republicans on the City Council, with the liberal Democrats and the more moderate Democrats. She was universally respected.”

One of those Republican colleagues, Assemblyman Brian Maienschein of San Diego, served on the City Council alongside Atkins. While they sometimes differed, he still holds her in high esteem.

“There were sometimes times we were on opposite sides of an issue, but it was very respectful,” Maienschein said.

The decision to elevate Atkins was historic in a number of ways. In addition to being the first Assembly speaker from San Diego, Atkins will be the first openly gay woman in the post.

Atkins arrived in San Diego in 1985, moving across the country to be with her pregnant sister. She got her start in politics working for the City Council campaign of Christine Kehoe, an acquaintance from the LGBT community who became the first openly gay candidate to win a seat on the San Diego council.

Years later, after Kehoe had won a seat in Sacramento and Atkins had been elected to Kehoe’s former City Council post, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders delivered a tearful address reversing his previous opposition to same-sex marriage. The fact that Sanders, a Republican, has a lesbian daughter was a factor, but he said Atkins played a key role in changing his mind.

“I have to give her a lot of credit,” Sanders said in an interview. “She’s the one who persuaded me that it was the right thing to do.”

Before she signed on with Kehoe, Atkins’ first job in San Diego was as the manager of a women’s health clinic, a decision Atkins said was prompted by a run-in with anti-abortion protesters. She eventually rose to become the clinic’s director of services.

Abortion advocates consider her a staunch ally. The bill Atkins pushed through last year, a Planned Parenthood-sponsored measure allowing more health professionals to perform abortions, continued similar legislative efforts on Kehoe’s part.

“We had no doubt that we had picked the right author,” said Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

Housing development, with an eye to ensuring access to affordable housing, also occupied Atkins during her time in San Diego, a focus that she attributed in part to having grown up “in substandard housing.” She pushed to declare a citywide housing emergency and secured an inclusionary housing policy requiring new developments to include lower-priced units, pitting her against developers and builders who at other times had been allies.

“It was a battle between her and the entire housing industry,” said Sherman Harmer, a developer who has led the Building Industry Association of San Diego. He added that despite such clashes, Atkins remained “very humble, very determined, very cooperative with the building industry.”

Affordable housing again became a flashpoint for Atkins last year, when she carried a bill that would have stipulated that cities and counties have the right to institute inclusionary housing policies. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, citing an ongoing court case and the risk of driving developers away. Predicting her next step, Atkins is cautious.

“I’m not intending to reintroduce a bill this year,” Atkins said. “I read (the governor’s) message and I don’t intend to put my colleagues through this unless there’s an opportunity that there’s a resolution we get to.”

Sharing Atkins’ interest in housing is her wife, Jennifer LeSar, who heads a development consulting organization. The two met through a women’s investment group in 1995 and married in 2008, before voters prohibited same-sex marriage by passing Proposition 8. Atkins said she and LeSar have vetted any overlaps in their work through a city ethics commission.

“We met because we’re both policy people,” Atkins said. “We are interested in the same issues. Conflict of interest? It has never been a conflict of interest.”

Atkins’ years on the City Council were not without controversy. At one point, she became the city’s third chief executive in a week. Mayor Dick Murphy stepped down amid questions about a massive pension deficit. Just three days later, Murphy’s replacement, Zucchet, resigned amid a corruption investigation (the charges against Zucchet were dismissed). The City Council made Atkins interim mayor until Sanders won election a few months later.

At the time, a huge pension shortfall had plunged the city into financial tumult, and the Securities and Exchange Commission wanted to know if elected officials had deceived people by failing to disclose the detrimental fiscal effects of previous pension changes.

Atkins was not among the five city officials ultimately charged. But she voted in 2002 for a plan that underfunded the system. She says now that she was misled by those recommending the changes.

“I think you learn that you can have experts around you that have degrees in finance and auditing, but if you’re an elected official it is your responsibility to make sure that every expert you have explains to you what you are doing and why,” Atkins said.

Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre, who dogged Atkins in those years, argued that Atkins was in over her head, faced with a complex topic and pressured by those seeking to augment pension benefits. But he said she has grown from the experience.

“I think in a way that will have strengthened her so she won’t make that mistake again,” Aguirre said. “I think she came through it and so was a better person because of it. She has been and will be grappling with the same issues statewide.”

More than a decade after the fateful vote, Atkins is not known for coming to policy debates unprepared. If anything, her reputation is the opposite.

“When she tells you something, she has the documentation. She’s done the research,” said Jerry Butkiewicz, who led the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council for over a decade. “So it’s tough to argue with her because she doesn’t blow smoke. She tells it how it is.”

Assemblywoman Toni Atkins

Democrat

Age: 51; born Aug. 1, 1962, in Wythe County, Va.

Residence: San Diego

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, Emory and Henry University; graduate, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University’s senior executive program

Experience: California Assembly, 2011-present. San Diego City Council, 2000-2008, including several months as acting mayor


Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White



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