California Forum

Mariel Garza: New Assembly Speaker Atkins looks you in the eye

What does it mean that the 69th speaker of the California Assembly, Toni Atkins, is a lesbian? Or the new leader of the state Senate, Kevin de León, is Latino?

Other than being firsts in their particular demographic to hold these leadership jobs, probably not much. Atkins succeeds another openly gay speaker, and both are your standard California Democrats. Plus, it’s not like the Legislature is hostile to women, Latinos or gays these days.

In the case of Atkins, though, the difference is likely to be found in personal style. I got a preview of how different an Atkins Assembly might look and sound from that of her predecessor Wednesday morning when the San Diego legislator was the guest of honor at the She Shares lecture series in Sacramento. (Full disclosure: San Diego is my hometown, and though I haven’t lived there since the ’80s, much of my family still does.)

Atkins took over last month for outgoing Speaker John A. Pérez. I don’t know if she carries a big stick, but Atkins speaks softly, at least compared with the booming voices of many male politicians. She came to California by way of Appalachia, and her voice is tinged with a southern lilt that comes out in words like “my” – “mah” – and “I” – “ah” – and conveys a genteel elegance on the dullest of political speak.

I caught up with Atkins at a special pre-event meet and greet with sponsors of the event. (Another disclosure: The Sacramento Bee was a sponsor, which allowed me to attend that VIP meeting.) The main perk was a few minutes of Atkins’ time and a picture with her to hang on the wall. She was warm and at ease, even to a pesky journalist. I waited for a lull before I approached, and she instantly assumed the camera-facing position with me. I told her I didn’t want a picture, just to talk with her. She laughed: “I just go where they tell to me to.”

But what strikes you is that Atkins looks, really looks at you when you’re talking to her. You can tell a lot about a person from their eye contact. I am reminded of my first in-person interview with another Assembly speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa, in 2005 when he was running for mayor of Los Angeles. I met him in a coffee shop in Eagle Rock to chat about his candidacy, and during the entire interview he could barely hold my eyes for more than a few seconds before glancing over my shoulder to see if someone more interesting happened by. At one point in the middle of the interview, Villaraigosa actually got up to introduce himself to someone else. I know it’s grueling to campaign in a city with nearly 4 million people and 500 square miles, but really?

Pérez isn’t exactly a loud talker, either, though his words often carry a sense of menace – as does prolonged eye contact. He is the kind of leader – serious and intimidating, and a bit of a bully – you don’t want to cross. One L.A. assemblyman, Anthony Portantino, found that out quite dramatically in 2011 when he declined to vote on a budget along with other Democrats. Pérez launched a political jihad against Portantino, which included threats to furlough his entire staff. Ha ha – eek.

I don’t know how Atkins will punish any unruly members of her party, though I imagine it will involve an amusing bon mot at his or her expense, such as the one she saved for Texas Gov. Rick Perry when he infamously compared homosexuality with alcoholism during his recent California visit: “I want you to know that I feel very healthy today. I am not addicted to anything other than coffee, which I was shooting as I came into the room. I thank Gov. Perry for being concerned about me, though,” she said during the She Shares discussion.

I do worry that Atkins might be a tad nuts, though, after she told the crowd about her early days and how she loved attending community meetings and planning hearings where the arcane and esoteric are examined in exhausting and minute detail, sometimes into wee hours of the night. “Ah just loved it,” she said.

Hmmm. I’ve had to attend too many of those same meetings in my decades as a reporter, and I can tell you that is just not normal.