Speaker of the Assembly: Who Is Toni Atkins?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins

The 69th Speaker of the Democratically-controlled Assembly, Toni Atkins, is a coal miner's daughter whose experience growing up poor in Virginia informs her legislative agenda, which features an emphasis on economic development, affordable housing, homelessness and health care.

Atkins, the first openly gay woman to hold the position, was sworn in May 12, 2014.

Atkins, born in 1962, was raised in the Appalachian Mountains. “We carried water from a spring, we had a smokehouse, we had an outhouse,” she told Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times in a March interview. Although she told Morrison her father was in construction, she usually referred to him in interviews as a coal miner. He was also a moonshiner.

She told an interviewer for Western Growers in 2013, “I grew up in substandard housing and in an area where there was not a lot of good affordable housing and that has given me a passion for the affordable housing issue. . . . I also grew up with no health care insurance, which has made me passionate about that issue.”

Atkins received a bachelor of arts degree in political science, with a focus on community organizing, from Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia, in 1984. She moved to California the next year and was hired as director of clinical services for Womancare Health Center. While there, Atkins helped expand clinic services by acquiring the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center and opening Womancare South Clinic in San Diego’s South Bay. She helped implement the first Lesbian Health Fair in 1991 as part of the LGBT Pride Festival.

She first became involved in politics when she worked as a volunteer on the San Diego City Council campaign of Christine T. Kehoe in 1993. Atkins joined Kehoe’s paid staff and ran for and won Kehoe's council seat when she was elected to the Assembly in 2000. Atkins was re-elected in 2004. That year, she completed the senior executive program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Atkins served as mayor of San Diego for one week when a confluence of political events thrust her into the job. Mayor Dick Murphy resigned in April 2005 after being named one of the nation's three worst big-city mayors by Time magazine for his management of San Diego's fiscal crisis. Councilman Michael Zucchet, who also served as deputy mayor, took over the helm, but was forced to resign three days later when he and fellow Councilman Ralph Inzunza were convicted of wire fraud and public corruption charges.

Atkins was then chosen by her fellow council members to be mayor pro-tem on July 19 for a week, thus establishing her as San Diego's first openly lesbian mayor. After a week, the council designated her deputy mayor and she held the top executive position until Republican Jerry Sanders was sworn in as mayor six months later.   

Atkins was considered an activist council member and was chiefly responsible for pushing through the city’s 2005 living wage ordinance that had been kicked around for six years. It required private companies with city service contracts or who worked at city-owned properties like Qualcomm and Petco Park to pay at least $12 an hour (or $10, plus health insurance).

Atkins won an Assembly seat representing the San Diego area in 2010. She was re-elected in 2012 and chosen majority leader by the Democratic caucus. Two years later she was elected Assembly speaker, replacing termed-out John Pérez.

Atkins lives in San Diego with her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, and their dogs, Haley and Joey.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Incoming Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins Brings Reputation as a Grinder (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

Next Assembly Speaker's Focus on Poor is Grounded in Experience (by George Skelton, Los Angeles Times)

Assemblymember Toni Atkins (California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus)

Toni Atkins, Married Lesbian, Takes Oath as Speaker of the California Assembly (by Karen Ocamb, Frontiers LA)

LEGISLATOR Profile: Toni Atkins Represents the 78th Assembly District (by Tim Linden, Western Growers)

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