At this critical moment in America democracy, the California Senate seems progressively prescient in picking a down-to-earth woman, a married lesbian who has fought her way up from Appalachian poverty, to serve as their President Pro Tem. At 2:14p on March 21, in an historic ceremony in the State Capitol, Senate Republicans and Democrats shattered glass ceilings and unanimously voted to hand San Diego Sen. Toni Atkins the gavel of power as the first woman, the first LGBT individual, and the first person to lead both the Senate and the Assembly since 1871.
The moment should be a universally Pinned Tweet. The often politically divisive legislators effusively praised Atkins’ authenticity, genuine consideration for others, and her willingness to listen. But, gay San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener noted, don’t mistake Atkins’ kindness for weakness.
“She’s pretty damn tough,” he said, “but she has never forgotten where she comes from, ever.” Atkins’ childhood was spent in the poverty of Appalachia with no running water.
Perhaps the most surprising comments came from Senate Republican Leader Pat Bates of Laguna Niguel who revealed that about 48 hours after the Democratic Caucus selected Atkins as their successor to Sen. Kevin de León, Atkins reached out to Bates. Atkins said she looked forward to the opportunity to sit down with the Republican leader and hear “what you think we need” to move forward on issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, and addiction.
“We’re going to disagree,” Bates said, but we “want our paths to merge at some point.”
The nationally divisive Trump elephant balloon bouncing in the background of some observers’ minds had been pierced, expelling the hot, hateful rhetoric into an imperceptible wheeze. Instead, Bates said she and Atkins talked about political partnership. “You will have my ear,” Atkins told Bates. “We were all sent up here to find solutions,” said Bates. The chamber applauded.
Ironically, around the same time Bates was talking about possible of bipartisanship, former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ohio Gov. John Kasich were in Los Angeles at a forum organized by a new group intent on shaping the California GOP. As of Jan. 2, 2018, Republican voter registration in California is 25.4%, on par with No Party Preference at 25%. New Way California is the brainchild of conservative Republican lawmaker Chad Mayes, “who was ousted as the party’s Assembly leader after he worked with Democrats on climate change legislation,” the AP reports.
Inside the Capitol, Atkins, 55, was talking about change, as well—changing the culture so the inequality of “the good old days” is no longer the norm.
“The future is now,” said Atkins. “Diversity is our destiny. Inclusion—a reflection of our character. But it’s not just about who we are—it’s about what we can do—together.”
But Atkins said she’s not interested in happy rhetoric. “I’ll be happy when we get results,” she said. “And I’m willing to work with anyone willing to shake off the shackles of zero-sum thinking and put some big ideas on the table for the people of California.”
And that means an end to petty intra-party bickering. “If you think I might not care enough about the historical rivalry which separates the Senate from the Assembly,” Atkins said, “you’re right, I don’t care at all about the old fights and frictions.”
Never has a scolding about duty sounded so compassionate and conciliatory as Atkins tackled the “hard truths” about the workplace sexual harassment allegations roiling Sacramento, resulting in the resignations of three lawmakers, so far. “Great policymaking doesn’t exempt policymakers from personal responsibility,” the new Senate leader said.
“True culture change—holding ourselves to a higher standard—requires the active, every day, enlightened participation of every person who works in and around this Capitol,” said Atkins, adding: “I pledge to you, that will be our mission and our mandate.”
Atkins insisted that everyone be treated with respect, noting that while they have their differences, “we have more in common.” And, she said the legislators will succeed “or we fail together.”
“As the Chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus, I speak on behalf of our entire caucus in saying that we cannot wait to see all that she does to improve the lives of all those in our state who, like her, have lived their lives with the odds stacked against them,” out Assemblymember Evan Low told the LA Blade.
“There are young girls and LGBTQ children across California — and back in Appalachia — who will see the news out of Sacramento today and know that their futures are a whole lot brighter because of the trails Toni has blazed,” said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur.
“Toni’s understand of the challenges that are faced by women, whether it’s in the home, raising a family in poverty, in the workplace taking on sexual harassment—she is a true fighter and ally and a believer in women’s equality,” Atkins’ mentor, out former State Sen. Chris Kehoe told the LA Blade. “The women of the Legislature, the men of the Legislature, the women of the third house, could not have a stronger ally. She will fight to make this happen. But she’ll fight it in a Toni Atkins way. She’ll reach out to people. She will listen. She will build consensus. She’ll find common issues and she’ll move it forward—but she will make change.”
Read more about Atkins not missing the “Anita Hill moment.”