New Assembly speaker offers new, but familiar, leadership

In an institution that favors, paradoxically, both continuity and change Toni Atkins may be the perfect choice for the times to lead the California Assembly.

Atkins, 51, was officially selected by the Assembly on Monday to be the body's 69th speaker. She will succeed Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, who will leave office this fall due to term limits. No precise date for the changing of the guard has been announced, except to say it will come in the late spring.

Atkins, D-San Diego, will be the third woman to ever serve as speaker and the first open lesbian in the job. Unlike the rancor of speakership votes in years past, she was chosen by what sounded like a unanimous voice vote. Republicans, either in the spirit of cooperation or just an acceptance of the legislative math, did not formally oppose her selection.

Atkins came to Sacramento in 2011, after serving on San Diego's city council during one of the city's most tumultuous periods. The daughter of an Appalachian mining family, Atkins has been a loyal lieutenant to Pérez and had to fight off the buzz that the Assembly needed a northern Californian to balance out the already selected new Senate leader, Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.

"I represent all Californians," she told reporters after Monday's vote. "It's really going to be a partnership with my colleagues, from north to south, urban/rural, east/west. I mean, there's a lot of different demographics to our state. It isn't just north/south."

Atkins says she'll focus on the most pressing of state issues -- a water bond for the November ballot, the state's recovering finances and budget needs -- while also adding in two of her own personal pet projects: finding more affordable housing for the homeless and providing resources for the growing number of California military veterans.

But her tenure will be limited. Atkins was elected under the old term limits system, which means she has only two more years left that she can serve in the Assembly. Many see her as the final leader under the 1990 terms limits system, given the large freshman class elected in 2012 that -- under that year's Proposition 28 -- could serve as many as 12 years in the lower house.

Short or time or not, Atkins says there's much work to be done.

"We have a full plate," she said.


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