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Assemblywoman Toni Atkins stepped down as speaker of the Assembly on Monday, turning the gavel over to Los Angeles-area Assemblyman Anthony Rendon.
Back in San Diego at the end of a busy week, she spoke with Voice of San Diego about lessons of leadership, the responsibilities of being an LGBT community member in power and representing San Diego in the Capitol.
Below are excerpts from the conversation.
What did it mean to you as speaker to be a woman and a member of the LGBT community?
I will say as a woman and probably as a member of the LGBT community too, as a lesbian, one of the things I have learned is that we still haven’t arrived.
A different reporter made a comment to me the other day, “Well, haven’t we been through all of that and aren’t things going well for women?” And I’m like, “Well, no.”
There’s too few of us in the Legislature. We are losing numbers, not gaining. The equal pay bill that we passed last year in California, one of the best in the nation, we still don’t make on average the same as men. So I would just say I am absolutely mindful both as a member of the LGBT community and certainly as a woman that even though I was able to serve as speaker, we still have a ways to go when it comes to being in positions of power.
I mean, if you saw the picture of all of us as the governor signed the managed care organization tax, I was the only woman out of about seven or eight men who were there. … I’m really mindful that there still exists some separation and definitely we are not really where we should be as women.
Did you feel an extra burden as a speaker to represent what you are, as a woman, as a member of the LGBT community?
I don’t know if I would call it a burden. I think I am certainly mindful that I represent women. I represent the gay community.
And you know, I grew up poor. … I just feel like you’ve got to always remember from where you came and how it felt to not be empowered. And I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to not be part of the mainstream. I know what it’s like from all those perspectives but also as someone who grew up poor.
Not to really have a place at the table, I know what that feels like. And so to have a place at the table feels more odd to me than to not have a place at the table. That I understand, and have grown up feeling.
So really, it was more about coming to grips with the fact that, OK, you have arrived. I wouldn’t call it a burden, but you have a special responsibility to try to make sure that you are representing all of these voices because they are attached to policy issues that change peoples’ lives.
It’s true, everybody brings their history, their lives. Everybody brings a different perspective to the table when they have the opportunity to be in positions of power. But I would just say I did at times feel that I was in a unique position to understand certain things.
But it’s been interesting. It’s been a wild ride. It feels like I’ve been doing this forever and I just gave up the gavel on Monday. So I haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that, you know, I’m free of some of this responsibility of running the House. Not of the legislation, of course. I’m really excited about legislation.
What did you learn about wielding power from the experience?
I did learn that when you are in a position of power and in the speaker’s office in particular, when people are talking to you, pay very close attention to what you are saying because many times they are actually asking you for something. … And it may not always seem clear that they are asking you for something specific. It could be, ‘What do you think about my bill?’ And you say, ‘It’s a good bill,’ and the next thing you know people will say, ‘Well, you know the speaker supports my bill. I need your vote.’… Or we’ll have a conversation to make me aware of what they’re doing and the next thing you know, they’ve used my name to say, ‘Well, the speaker gave me a blessing to take this issue forward.’
So you have to pay very close attention to what you say and how you say it, and how it will be perceived by whoever you are talking to. Because I learned that sometimes people, when I thought I was having a conversation, they were actually asking for something or trying to figure out how to have me be helpful to them in something they were doing. If someone comes to me and says, ‘What do you think about my legislation?’ and I say it’s a good piece of legislation, that doesn’t mean I’ve just endorsed it and said that I will make people vote for it … so I learned in that position, choose your words, make sure you clarify what you’re being asked and for what purpose.
And I did learn that everyone wants something from you. It’s a bit of a lonely position … because you are in charge. You have the ability to give people things that they need or want. But you know, you have to run the House. You have to make sure you’re not giving all the money away from the Assembly budget because you have to keep a budget, you have to account for things going forward.
So everybody wants something from you, and it can be a bit of a lonely place. And I remember thinking that when I saw (former Assembly Speaker) John Perez and I was his majority leader. I tried very hard just to let him be around me without always talking about work or something that I wanted to bring to his attention. And it was good I had (now Rep.) Karen Bass who was the second woman speaker, she was quite a support to me always. I could pick up the phone at the drop of a hat and ask her what she thought, had she ever been through this? And she would call me and check in to see how I was doing. It was a special relationship and having been speaker I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to make a relationship with Karen Bass.
You know there have only been three women speakers and the first one, Doris Allen, was a Republican woman. She’s deceased now, and it was a play by Willie Brown who lost the speakership to put her in place. So Karen and I are effectively the only two women and we’re both still here within a short time frame. So I could count on her, that was kind of a special issue because she is the only other woman.
And then of course, John Perez was always available if I ever wanted to call him. So it was nice to have those two individuals and of course he was the first member of the gay community to be speaker … so it’s kind of interesting I would really reach out to the two of them when I needed them. And they were always there.
Any final thoughts?
Now that I’ve done it and I think it went OK, I will just tell you that I think it was great. I think it was great now that I survived it, and not only that but I do have to say this … the fact that I was the first San Diego speaker means a lot to me personally and to be from San Diego and realize we’ve never had a speaker, it was pretty special … It was important for people to know, San Diego is a great place. Speakers don’t just come from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It was great, and I’m thankful to be home. We did the transition on Monday and I’ve got to tell you, I felt different almost immediately. It’s been a different kind of week, so I’ve enjoyed it.
Golden State News
• If you haven’t checked out San Diego Decides, VOSD’s new election podcast, get on that.
• Some shakeups in two local Republicans’ bids for re-election: Phil Graham has dropped his Assembly bid, leaving what looks like an easy stroll to another term for Assemblyman Rocky Chavez. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Brian Jones has a new challenger in jeweler Leo Hamel. (Union-Tribune, Times of San Diego)
• Count us a step ahead of D.C.: The California Supreme Court plans to start streaming its arguments online. (NBC San Diego)
• A judge shot down a challenge to the state’s high-speed rail project, allowing it to move forward. (Associated Press)
• Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown in support of a bill written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez that would let farmworkers earn overtime pay. (L.A. Times)
• Samples of craft beer are coming to the Hillcrest Farmers Market thanks to a state law passed in 2015. (NBC San Diego)
• Assembly Republicans’ new leader is a conservative Christian, but he’s no culture warrior, he tells CalMatters. Assemblyman Chad Mayes “is trying to make poverty alleviation a key focus for Republicans.”