EDITORIAL: From humble beginnings, Toni Atkins ascends to Assembly's next speaker

March 19, 2014 

Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, laughs during during her nominations and voting to be the next speaker of the California Assembly.

MANNY CRISOSTOMO — mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

As she ascends to the speakership later this year, Assembly Member Toni Atkins promises to make housing and the fight against homelessness top-tier issues, welcome goals.

Term limits have left the speakership much diminished from the days when Willie Brown led the Assembly. Atkins, 51, who will replace Speaker John A. Pérez later this year, will be a short-timer. She will be termed out in 2016. But she still will be occupying one of the most powerful positions in California.

Atkins will help decide the shape of any water bond. As speaker, she will grapple with issues ranging from taxation and criminal justice sentencing, to high-speed rail and the cap-and-trade method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She appears to be up to the task.

Atkins has shown herself to be open and not petty. Significantly, Assembly Republicans joined Democrats in electing her as speaker. In a gesture not often seen these days, Republicans publicly praised her upon her election.

U-T San Diego quoted Assembly Member Rocky Chávez, a Republican from Oceanside in San Diego County, as calling Atkins "a pragmatic leader who will serve the needs of California and my district." Assembly Member Brian Maienschein, a San Diego Republican, said Atkins' anti-homelessness effort while she was on the San Diego City Council was "unbelievably successful."

Atkins' ascent is noteworthy in part because she will be the first openly lesbian legislator to hold the position. It's noteworthy, too, because in California, who she or anyone else loves is much less an issue than in much of the nation. She also is the first speaker to come from San Diego.

Atkins grew up in rural Virginia, in a house without running water, as The Sacramento Bee's Jeremy B. White wrote in a profile of her in January. She is the daughter of a coal miner father and a seamstress mother.

Atkins promises to put aside parochial San Diego interests and place the good of the state first, which is important. She also has shown herself to be supportive of the public's right to know how governmental bodies operate.

She has set the worthy goal of emphasizing affordable housing, veterans issues and homelessness. We hope she adds to that care for the mentally ill, a topic that will need a champion when Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg leaves the Senate.

Because of term limits, the power of speakers has declined, and they have limited time. But the job remains weighty. Based on early impressions, Atkins won't squander the opportunity.

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