Cover Story

Senate President pro Tempore Emeritus Toni Atkins 

Talks Past, Present and Future

Tell us a little about yourself, upbringing and the impact to your policies

I grew up in Southwest Virginia in a very rural and conservative community. My dad was a lead miner and a coal miner, and my mom was a seamstress. We lived in a house without running water and didn’t have healthcare. My parents worked and didn’t have access to sick days or anything like that so that has impacted anything I do today, the things I work on stem from not having access to healthcare, so I work a lot on healthcare policy. Certainly, affordable housing, while I always had a roof over my head it certainly was not quality housing. 

In other areas, I was just at a press conference where we talked about the earned income tax credit which puts a little more money in the pockets of low-income working Californians. I was the person that sponsored and started that program in California when I was the Speaker and it’s one of the things that I am most proud of because it really helps poor working people. So, I would say a lot of the work I do really stems from how I grew up, my lived experience and what it means to help other folks who find themselves in that situation today. I came out as a lesbian when I was 17 and of course I had no role models in southwest Virginia, and it was not something you discussed. I grew up in a Pentecostal holiness family so all of that informs the work that I do around the LGBTQ+ community but as well all of those issues stem from lived experience and values and I hope to provide some kind of support to others who grew up like me. 


California was I was a place I wanted to be! I grew up hearing from my father who served in World War II about a sleepy little town called San Diego and I actually also remember Harvey Milk and thinking to myself in the mid to early 70’s (and seeing that on TV) what an amazing place California must be to have someone like that in a position of power even though at that time I didn’t know I was a lesbian. California seemed to me to be the wave of the future, something magical. My sister got stationed here in the Navy, just like my dad, she followed him into the military. When she became pregnant with my nephew her husband was also in the Navy and scheduled for deployment eight months away, so she wanted support, and I was like “I’m there!”. My girlfriend at the time and I drove all the way across country and couldn’t wait to get here and fell in love with San Diego and that was my introduction to California. 


I was a Political Science major in college, but I never really thought that would translate into becoming an elected official. I never thought of myself in that regard, but I got involved because I supported Christine Kehoe, she was running to be the first openly LGBTQ+ member of the city council and it was really a movement. It was so energizing; it was the best campaign I’ve ever worked on including my own. For us it was a big deal in the community to elect one of our own and have that be successful. So, I joined the San Diego Democratic Club which was the gay Democratic club at that time (now Democrats for Equality). I met and learned who Chris Kehoe was, she worked for a council member, he decided not to run for reelection, so she stepped forward and I became part of that. I still didn’t think I would run for office, but she asked me to come work for her once she got elected and I loved it. I loved constituent services, I loved the community work; I had been a community organizer, and it applied to a whole different set of issues and things you could work on like housing and small business and support for the schools even though the city didn’t have anything to do with the schools, it was about the environment around the schools. Affordable housing of course, support for the gay community, Chris got domestic partnerships passed at the city so that was my introduction. 


Well, Chris was clearly a mentor to me, and she was the one that encouraged me to run for City Council when she termed out and decided to run for the Assembly and she pushed me, she wouldn’t let me off the hook! She said you really need to do this, you’re the kind of person that really needs to be on the city council and you have experience. So she was clearly one of my political mentors and I would say there were others, Sheila Kuehl who was the first openly LGBTQ+ person elected to the State Legislature A few years before Chris, Shirley Weber who I heard speak when I had just gotten to San Diego, she was the President of the San Diego Unified School Board and I heard her speak, if you’ve ever heard Shirley Weber speak, you never forget it and I remember when I was elected to the City Council and even before that I would call on Shirley over the years to say “help me understand this or what do you think” and she was always willing to step forward and to give me advice and to be there when I needed her. So, on and on, many women, when I was in the Assembly and became the Assembly Speaker, Karen Bass who is the second woman speaker reached out to me and said whatever you need let me know, she had a kitchen cabinet of women in Sacramento (even though she was now in Congress) she had that group of women and she told them “you need to support Toni”, so for the last 13 years I’ve had a kitchen cabinet of women that was bequeathed to me by Congresswoman, former Speaker and now Mayor of Los Angeles Karen Bass. So, I think we find ways to mentor each other, reciprocal mentoring. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors and I really try to pay that forward myself by having mentees and try to provide that real support for those who want to be in politics or work in that arena or run for office themselves. 


Well, I ran a women’s health clinic in the mid 80’s, that’s how I met Chris Kehoe originally. We provided a range of services including abortions for women who needed access that service, women from Mexico, women in the military who couldn’t get abortions at military hospitals and others. I was able to do a piece of legislation that expanded access to abortion rights and care by having nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and physician assistants be able to do abortions, first trimester abortions with supervision of a doctor. Years later we were able to translate that bill into a new bill that would allow them to do the service without doctor supervision because as a best practice it’s available in a number of other states. When we saw the fall of Roe V. Wade with the Dobbs decision of the Supreme Court, we knew that in California we were going to have to do more so I’ve done a lot of legislation around women and women’s healthcare and expansion. Women in the jails and prisons being shackled when they’re on their way maybe to deliver a baby, they’re incarcerated, they come into jail pregnant, when they have to deliver, they used to shackle the women on the way to the hospital, so I did a piece of legislation to say you cannot do that, doctors have said that’s not the best practice. On and on, some issues around domestic violence, I am a woman so I’m definitely gonna support legislation and budget actions to help women so that’s been some of my proudest legislation particularly around reproductive choice and justice. 


Well, voting is critical, every vote does count, I know people that have won elections by 13 votes in the state senate so every vote matters, every vote counts and that’s the way to make your voice heard and from the earliest age, I had another mentor in college tell me “you don’t have to be a victim, you could be born into any number of situation’s but you can use your voice working with others to make a real difference” and we know that it works. So, what I would tell young folks is believe in yourself, it isn’t just about politics, politics is about community, it’s about being able to create the community you want to live in, and you do that by joining with other people to make it happen. So, use your voices, don’t be afraid to say what you think and what you need. I would say to the young LGBTQ+ community, we are facing a backlash right now particularly against youth and the Trans community and I would say work with us, work with your community, we want to make sure that we’re all safe and that we protect each other but I would say use your voice it’s so important and it will be the only thing that makes a difference. 


I have so enjoyed being a public servant that’s how I’ve approached every aspect of what I’ve done, as a staff member to Chris Kehoe, as a clinic Director and certainly as I got elected myself to the City Council, the Assembly and in the Senate. My next project is I’m going to run for Governor of California!! I’m very excited about this. Meeting with communities and individuals across the state of California really gives me energy. It gives me energy and it gives me a way to still contribute. I’m not done, I’ve done this for almost 30 years in the political arena as an elected official or a public servant, I’m not done and there’s so much more to do and I’m very excited about this endeavor. 


Well a mentor told me long ago and I think I might’ve made reference to this but the thing that I take to heart and everything I’ve done is when I was young and didn’t know the world was about me, my mentor said to me, “imagine the world that you want to live in and then work to create it” and I feel like that’s what I have been doing these last three or four decades and I followed my heart, I do things I’m passionate about and I believe that’s all connected to imagining the world you want to live in and then working to create it.

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