Who she is: A member of the California State Assembly, Toni Atkins will become speaker of that body in June, making her the first lesbian and only the third woman to hold the post.
What she’s accomplished: Atkins, a former administrator of a women’s clinic, has risen steadily in California politics. A Democrat, she was a member of the San Diego City Council from 2000 to 2008, and she served as acting mayor for a period in 2005, after Mayor Dick Murphy resigned. In 2010 she was elected to the State Assembly, and in June she will become Assembly speaker, a powerful leadership position that’s been held by the likes of Willie Brown (later mayor of San Francisco) and will give her great opportunity to influence public policy in the state. She will succeed a gay man, John Pérez, and will be the first lesbian and third woman in the post.
Asked recently by Los Angeles Times interviewer Patt Morrison if being the first lesbian speaker is a big deal, Atkins replied, “It certainly is a big deal to members of the LGBT community. We [will] get to the point where these things are: OK, so what? We’re not there yet. It still matters. I'm [only] the third woman speaker in California. I’m mindful of how important that is, but I didn’t get selected because I'm a lesbian or a woman. But I’m proud to be part of those groups.” Her district, which includes much of central San Diego, has the highest concentration of LGBT residents in the city. She and her spouse, small-business owner Jennifer LeSar, live in the South Park/Golden Hill neighborhood.
In addition to LGBT concerns, Atkins’s legislative priorities include health care, affordable housing, economic development, and veterans’ issues. In the realm of health care, she sponsored a bill to allow trained nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, and certified nurse midwives to perform early abortions, and it became law last year. Of her work as a women’s clinic administrator, she told Morrison, “Having a right to control your choices just resonated with me. I went to a clinic one Saturday — I forget why — but I saw all these people picketing. The taunts and chants and trying to physically block women trying to get services really affected me. So I applied for a job and they hired me.”
Atkins is involved with several organizations that encourage other women to run for office, as her mentor, Christine Kehoe, encouraged her. When Kehoe, also a lesbian, was on the San Diego City Council, Atkins served on her staff before running for the council herself. Kehoe was later elected to the State Assembly, then the State Senate.
As speaker, Atkins will combine a low-key style with a great deal of determination. “I enjoy working things out, trying to come to a compromise,” she told Morrison. “I don’t give up. I think, being from the South, it’s partly a cultural thing. I have a pretty easygoing manner, but don’t mistake that for the fact that I’m not going to push forward on things.”
Specifically, Atkins is from southwestern Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains. Her working-class family had few creature comforts. “We carried water from a spring, we had a smokehouse, we had an outhouse,” she said in the Times interview. “Everything took longer when you have to heat water on a wood stove to put in a tub to bathe. The outhouse — to this day it’s why I’m afraid of spiders, and to this day it’s why [the bathroom] is [one of] my favorite rooms in the house.”
Choice quote: “I never knew early hardships might bode well for my ability to endure!” — Atkins to the Times, on her Appalachian upbringing