Capitol Alert

Toni Atkins will be first woman to lead California Senate

Toni Atkins will become the first woman to lead the California Senate next year.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced Thursday that Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, is the consensus pick of the Senate Democratic Caucus to succeed him as leader. She will be formally elected in January, and a transition will take place later in the year, de León said in a statement.

“Toni is a leader of great experience, achievement and integrity, and I have every confidence that she will lead America’s most accomplished legislative chamber to even greater heights,” de León said.

In a series of firsts, Atkins will also be the first openly gay pro tem in state history and the first person to have served as both Assembly speaker and Senate president pro tem in nearly 150 years, according to Alex Vassar, a legislative historian at the California State Library.

“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, 55, 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 and de León declined interview requests Thursday.

Atkins was elected to the Senate last November after serving for six years in the Assembly, where she was speaker from May 2014 until March 2016.

The daughter of a miner and a seamstress, she grew up in a house without running water in rural Virginia. The family didn’t have health insurance, which she discussed on the Senate floor earlier this year as she pushed her colleagues to adopt a universal health care bill she introduced with Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.

She worked for the San Diego City Council before becoming a councilwoman in 2000. She served on the council until 2008, including a short stint as interim mayor.

In a text message to other Democratic senators, Atkins said she intended to build on successes under de León’s leadership. She pledged to focus on the needs of the senators and address challenges such as elections, legislation, sexual harassment and workplace safety.

“I do believe California can chart a new vision and give direction to other states and industries on how to address this issue,” she wrote.

De León, who terms out of the Legislature at the end of next year, entered the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Dianne Feinstein in October. The announcement prompted lawmakers to make plans to replace him as pro tem.

De León had previously made it known that he wanted to continue to serve as pro tem as long as possible. Some in the caucus questioned whether de León could focus on both his federal race and fundraising for state senate campaigns, a key aspect of the leadership position.

Atkins and at least two other Democratic legislators – Sens. Connie Leyva of Chino and Bob Hertzberg of Los Angeles – jockeyed for the top spot in the Senate. Leyva announced her desire to be the next pro tem in September, with some quick to criticize her for speaking out. She stepped out of the race roughly two weeks ago after it became clear that Atkins secured the necessary votes from other lawmakers.

“I was happy to come together with Sen. Atkins and support her,” Leyva said Thursday. “I think it’s incredibly important for a woman to be pro tem. We need unity right now in the Senate.”

Hertzberg commended de León and voiced support for the incoming pro tem.

“We have critical work to do, and there’s no better person to lead the charge than my fellow former Speaker Toni Atkins,” Hertzberg said in a statement. “Senator Atkins’ experience as speaker makes her well positioned to hit the ground running, and I am excited to work together to address the great challenges we face in the Senate and across California.”

Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus joined a conference call early Thursday morning to receive an update on the house’s actions to address sexual harassment in the Capitol. At the end of the call, de León discussed transitioning the leadership role to Atkins, according to lawmakers.

It’s unclear when Atkins will take over next year.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff