Sen. Toni Atkins becomes the first woman and openly gay leader of the California Senate next month, tasked with guiding the house through an involuntary and overdue culture change after the “Me Too” movement rocked the Capitol.
The challenge for the San Diego Democrat and former Assembly speaker is sizable. As pro tem, she’s expected to clean up the house and win back public trust while defending Senate Democrats’ two-thirds majority at the polls. Sen. Josh Newman is facing a recall election, and two men in her caucus – Sens. Tony Mendoza and Bob Hertzberg – are under investigation for sexual harassment heading into the June primary.
Respected for her pragmatism, Atkins will lead a little differently than Kevin de León, her ambitious predecessor, who was known for jamming through tough legislation and helping lead their party’s resistance to President Donald Trump. Perhaps taking a cue from Gov. Jerry Brown, Atkins didn’t mention the president once in our interview, her first sit-down to discuss her new role and the Legislature’s sexual harassment problem. The 55-year-old rural Virginia native takes the reins of the upper house March 21.
Q: You’re the first woman and first openly gay Senate pro tem in California state history. It’s also 2018. Tell me what this means to you and why you think it’s taken so long.
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A: I can’t help but be just really overwhelmed emotionally, particularly in this era of everything going on, to be the first woman and certainly the first LGBT pro tem. I’m really mindful of what it means to people. I’m also someone that doesn’t like to make a big fuss over myself, so it’s a little discomforting for me, when I really need to pause, take it in and appreciate the fact that it’s not about me necessarily. I’m the person that gets to be that, but it’s a big deal. It’s huge for women. I’ve been a feminist from my college days, supported the equal rights amendment, ran a community clinic that provided reproductive health services for women. These issues are near and dear to my heart. So, it’s an incredible moment in time and I’m mindful that I get to be the person that is the face of that.
Q. What are your priorities as pro tem?
A: I’m going to be internally focused given everything going on. As you know, I got my most important bill done last year, SB 2, housing. My goal is to be, at least in this first year, internally focused, look at some of these issues we have to address because of the “Me Too” movement and relationships between the Senate and Assembly. I’m very excited about the possibilities to do things a little differently. I have to tell you, I’m incredibly looking forward to one more opportunity to work with Gov. Brown in his last year on budget negotiations and legislation. He’s never exactly linear or easy on issues, but he’s fair and I really enjoyed negotiating with him.
Q: You’re coming in under this cloud of sexual harassment hanging over the institution. Some women are still afraid to speak up because they think they could be retaliated against or they think the Legislature has swept these things under the rug. How do you regain public trust?
A: I think that’s our big challenge. It’s going to take real work and time to do it. I can’t look at you today and say I promise you we are going to fix it and you don’t need to be afraid. You’ve got to prove it, and so I think we need to prove it to the employees in this building. Look, we’ve had a zero tolerance policy. Obviously, having a policy doesn’t exactly mean that’s the reality. We have to make the policy a reality. It’s going to take time and proof. We have to evaluate whether our policies are the right policies in the HR world. Then we have to look at our training and re-evaluate. We all have to engage an invest in the training and realize it isn’t just a check on the employment list of things we have to do every two years. It’s real. And there have to be real ramifications, and there has to be more transparency. That’s what proves to people that you’re serious. So, this will take a little bit of time, but I will tell you that I see it as an incredible opportunity that we have never had before to actually change, and I mean that in the context of the big environment. When you see what’s going on in the world of movies and media and the military and the Legislature, this is an opportunity that we have not had before.
Q: Some women see a woman taking over and where you’ve been and are hopeful that you can create change in this institution. Others are a little more cautious because you led the Assembly and problems persisted there. Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra had the Democratic Party endorsement while you were there. Should women trust that you will really make a difference on this issue?
A: Well, I think women should see that there’s an opportunity here, that we get another chance to get this right. Did we have the environment to support any of us? I was the third woman speaker. We have fewer women in positions of power. The Assembly has more women than the Senate. You know, critical mass is helpful. I’ve been part of this culture, you’ve been part of this culture, we’ve all been part of this culture that has existed. It’s always been this culture, which accepts, allows, and doesn’t support. So, finally you get a new face, some diversity, some gender diversity, in place. It’s hard to expect that without some kind of support that you’re going to make broad social change in 22 months. Now that doesn’t remove the responsibility I had as speaker to respond. Regardless of who the pro tem would have been or the speaker, it is on our shoulders to do this work.
Q: Speaking of that, there are questions about how the current leadership handled these allegations. The Senate, for example, waited at least 12 weeks to ask Sen. Tony Mendoza to temporarily step down after leadership said it learned about the allegations involving the fellow. He refused. Then it took lawmakers hours of conversation to get him to agree to a leave. Would you have handled the situation differently as Senate leader?
A: I think that’s kind of an unfair question because we’re in the midst of that culture change in which women finally stepped forward and said enough. Enough. There’s plenty of blame to go around for how any of us responded or didn’t respond. But regardless we have an obligation, collectively. It’s hard to point at one person. The system let everybody down. Our process and our system let everybody down. We have an opportunity to correct that and that’s what we have to do.
Q: As pro tem, do you want to be informed about sexual harassment allegations as complaints are made?
A: Absolutely. I want to know. The Rules Committee members have said we as leaders want to be aware of any sexual harassment allegations. You’re going to see us probably have more executive sessions so we’re made aware. And of course there’s going to be the part of it down the road where if claims that are made through the process, as those claims are substantiated or not substantiated, there will be a process where the substantiated claims are provided. We still have to work out better processes, but I absolutely want to know.
Q: Do you think lawmakers facing sexual harassment allegations should be immediately suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation?
A: We’re in that discussion now. You heard people stand up on the floor and make a comparison that if something happens with a police officer, they are pulled away with pay pending the outcome of an investigation. You know, we haven’t seen a lot of examples here. And as it relates to elected officials, that’s been a little harder because these individuals are elected by their constituents. I didn’t hire anyone. The voters did. For some of us, I think it’s being mindful of the fact that there needs to be due process, however you define that. There also needs to be recognition that they were put in office by the voters. We still in the face of that have to do the HR function. There are employees who we have to consider first and foremost. I think unless you have a complete investigation, I have a hard time removing someone’s pay until we know. That’s a presumption that you’re guilty before there’s been an investigation, and that’s not a tenant of our society, our democracy, regardless of how you must feel. What I did support and what I felt was the fairer thing was to remove with pay and let’s get the investigation done. And that needs to happen.
Every case is different. We’re going to learn a lot in this process about what people think about different types of behavior. This is going to be a discussion I think you’ll see play out publicly thanks to the media because we need to have these discussions. It provides education. The other thing, it isn’t just about reporting. It’s also about the education people get about the various types of actions. So I think it’s a case by case thing. I think it’s a reasonable thing to expect and frankly I think the Senate has just set precedents.
Q: So far we have bills moving to extend whistleblower protections to legislative staff and lobbyists. Advocates have repeatedly asked for a truly independent body that does not report to the Rules Committee to report these allegations. What comes next?
A: Help me understand, is there truly an independent body ever if they have to be paid by the Legislature? I think we can do everything we can to set up firewalls, have expectations, do audits and evaluations of whether what we’ve put into place is actually as independent as possible. I think there’s a number of options we have. We’re sort of in the middle of the storm dealing with a couple of allegations and complaints that deal with members. But we’re also continuing to deal with staff situations. I think it’s going to be interesting to figure out how we proceed forward. I want to make sure we get the input from people. We still need to get the best practices, and we’ve got research going on into practices. I think there’s this push because we are the Legislature and in the public eye, that we need to move and do something quickly right away. Anytime you do that, are you really listening to the voices about how best to do it? So, I do think we need an independent process of investigation that is separate from us. We have no control over the firm that is doing the investigation. All we can do is check in and say how close are we to being done? We can’t tell them how to do the investigation, and we are not. I do think we need an independent process, as independent as possible, and we may need to audit ourselves going forward to see how that works long-term.
Q: When the results of an investigation come back, does the Rules Committee decide what to do?
A: Who would you have do it? HR has best practices, guidelines, performance metrics and what you do with employees. We will be getting those reports. They will come to the Rules Committee. In terms of thinking of a better way, we are an employer. Do corporations, do the military, school districts? We have to use as our guideline employment practice. Our system obviously has not worked well, which is why you’re hearing the outcry that is not a fair process. So we need to correct upon our system in a way that makes the people who work here feel safe and that they have a fair option to be heard and there’s not retaliation. Because we are elected officials, we’ve got to make the public feel comfortable. We have multiple responsibilities, which makes it a little hard. People are tossing great ideas out in our caucuses, from the Republican to Democrat caucus, to the Institute of Governmental Advocates. They are all giving great ideas. But we have to put them together in a way that works for every entity. It’s not simple.
Q: Should the Senate and Assembly have the same policies moving forward?
A: Between the Assembly and the Senate we have really got to come together on a system because staff members go back and forth. Staff deal with elected officials on both sides. It makes no sense for us to have disparate rules and policies. For the most part I think much of our stuff is similar, but we’ve got to have a process that we can work across houses. I’ve had preliminary conversations with the speaker. He and (outgoing Senate President pro tem) Kevin de León have some agreements on how to do this. We see the Joint Rules Committee working, and that gives me hope that we’re going to get there.
Q: How do you expect the relationship between the two houses to be different under your watch?
A: Much like everything else that we’re talking about, it’s a dynamic that has existed always. I guess I’m one of the people that feels like there will always be a little bit of tension .... We want to have a better rapport up until the moment that we don’t. I think we can set the tone as leadership. I get along quite well with (Assembly Speaker) Anthony Rendon. I know what it’s like to be the speaker. I’m learning what it’s like over here in this culture, this somewhat different culture. I think there is a way we can do this better. I had the opportunity to try to do that as speaker. I think because Anthony and I have served together, we did the water bond together, we can give it a good try.
Q: What else should people know about how you intend to address sexual harassment in the Capitol?
A: I think we can get lost in the specific questions of this and that, but I think what we have to see is this really is once in a lifetime. I’ve been waiting my whole life to be part of something that really helps women be treated equally and not have to deal with some of this stuff. Not since Anita Hill. Anita Hill we sat glued to the TV watching and hoping that people would hear her and change things. And it didn’t happen. I have to say as disheartening as all these individual stories are that are coming out, we have to rise above that and see this is a unique opportunity that we have never had before. Never.