Assembly Democrats are poised to elect San Diego Assemblywoman Toni Atkins as their new speaker, which would make her the first openly gay woman to lead the lower house.
The race turned decisively in Atkins’ favor over the last few days, sources said, as key lawmakers decided to lend her their support. Currently the majority floor leader, she would also be the first Assembly leader from San Diego since the Legislature became a full-time body.
“Majority Leader Atkins has a great deal of support within the Democratic Caucus – support that includes my own – to become the next Speaker of the Assembly,” current Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles said in a statement, adding that the caucus has not formally voted.
The speaker sets policy priorities, oversees the flow of legislation, determines committee assignments and holds tremendous sway over everything from individual members’ budgets to office assignments. On the campaign front, the speaker guides fundraising and shapes electoral strategy for dozens of races.
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A native of Virginia, Atkins served on the San Diego City Council for eight years and was interim mayor of San Diego before joining the Assembly in 2011. Her legislative record includes a law allowing more medical professionals to perform abortions and bills aiding the transgendered.
Both the Senate and the Assembly need to elect new leaders this year, with Pérez and his counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, forced out by term limits.
With the Assembly comprising the largest number of freshman lawmakers in decades – a majority of current Assembly members are serving their first terms – some advocated choosing one of those newly elected members to be the next speaker.
Selecting Atkins as speaker would mark a departure from that approach. Atkins can serve only one additional two-year term in the Assembly before bumping up against term limits.
In an interview last week, Atkins affirmed she was a candidate for the speakership but declined to go into specifics about the state of the race.
“I’m really honored and pleased that people see me in that fashion,” she told The Sacramento Bee.
In another sign that Atkins is headed to the top job, a San Francisco-based organization that just last week backed Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, sent out a release praising Atkins.
“The Bay Area Council congratulates Assemblymember Toni Atkins of San Diego, whom we understand has secured the votes to become the next Speaker of the California Assembly,” Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, said in the statement.
That endorsement of Atkins marked a swift reversal from the group’s decision last week to promote Gordon in an effort to ensure the next speaker hailed from Northern California, counteracting the elevation of Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, as the new leader in the Senate.
There had been speculation that de León’s elevation would come at the expense of Assembly speaker candidates from Southern California. But former and current lawmakers discounted the notion that the Legislature must have one leader from Northern California and one from Southern California.