State Sen. Toni Atkins has come a long way since she was a girl growing up poor without running water in rural Virginia.
This month, the San Diego lawmaker is set to replace Kevin de León as leader of the California Senate. She will be the first woman and first open lesbian to hold the position. She also will be the first person since the 19th century to hold both of the Legislature’s top jobs – Assembly speaker and Senate leader.
“She came with a sense of wanting to make a difference but didn’t think she could make a difference because of her background.” — Stephen Fisher
Atkins, 55, is a real coal miner’s daughter who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing or running water, and her mother cooked on a wood stove, according to her college professor and close friend Stephen Fisher. When Atkins and her family moved to the city of Roanoke, she was teased for her hillbilly accent.
Only two others have served as both Assembly speaker and Senate leader — Ransom Burnell (Assembly Speaker in 1861 and Senate pro Tem in 1864) and James T. Farley (Assembly speaker in 1856 and Senate pro Tem in 1871-1872), said Alex Vassar, author of California Lawmaker: The Men and Women of the California State Legislature.
Fisher recalls that when she arrived at Emory and Henry College, where she ultimately majored in political science, she had a lot of “anger and shame” about her upbringing. “She came with a sense of wanting to make a difference but didn’t think she could make a difference because of her background,” he said.
But as she grew more comfortable, she became more confident in her skin. She was part of a group of students who asked Fisher to teach a course on feminism. He agreed if the students would help him create the course, including decided what texts do use and how the class would be structured. “It was a transformative experience for all of us,” he said, adding that Atkins wasn’t the only participant who went on to have great success in professional life.
Atkins also showed courage by helping arrange for a visit to campus by lesbian folk singer Holly Near in the early 1980s when the college “was not a safe place to come out in,” Fisher said.
Atkins was elected to the state Assembly in 2010. becoming Speaker of the Assembly in 2014.
But Fisher said he had no idea back then that Atkins would end up where she is now. “I knew that she was going to do well but I had no notion that she was going into public work.”
Atkins ended up continuing her education at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University before relocating to San Diego in 1985.
She initially served as director of clinic services of Womancare Health Center but soon began working for then San Diego City Councilmember Christine Kehoe, the city’s first openly gay elected official. Atkins’ first jump into elected office came on the San Diego City Council in 2000, when she replaced Kehoe after Kehoe moved on to the state Legislature.
Atkins was herself elected to the state Assembly in 2010. becoming Speaker of the Assembly in 2014. She set her priorities as access to health care, affordable housing and educational opportunities.
Among her achievements was getting the bipartisan support for a $7.5 billion water bond approved by voters in 2014. “That was a clear example of her leadership because folks believed it could not be done,” said Assemblymember Shirley Weber of San Diego.
“She has that coal miner’s daughter perspective that comes out of that environment.” — Shirley Weber
Weber also credits Atkins with getting her to run for office. Weber was recently retired after a long career as a professor of Africana studies at San Diego State University when Atkins asked her to consider running for the Assembly.
When Weber won the election and joined the Assembly in 2012, it was Atkins who opened doors for her and helped her make the transition. “She said I will help you do this and she did,” Weber said. “Other people say I’ll help you and you can’t find them. They don’t do anything for you.”
Weber said she is impressed that Atkins has been able to rise so far while keeping her dignity and maintaining her integrity.
“She has that coal miner’s daughter perspective that comes out of that environment,” she said. “You don’t get out of that environment if you don’t take what you have, make it better, learn from strengths and minimize your weaknesses.”
Atkins was elected to the state Senate in 2016 and was able to get all 12 bills she sent to the governor, signed and approved. In her December newsletter, she said she is especially proud of Senate Bill 2, which creates a permanent funding source for affordable housing and Senate Bill 179, which requires the state to legally recognize “nonbinary” as a gender for people who do not identify as male or female.
Rick Zbur, executive director for Equality California, said Atkins is one of the best advocates for the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. He applauded her upcoming advance to leadership of the senate.
“It’s important that she has shattered yet another glass ceiling,” he said. “These kinds of achievements are important for LBGTQ people because we have been historically underrepresented in government.”
Through it all, she remembers her Virginia roots. She invited Cameron Chase, a 20-year-old Emory and Henry student, to Sacramento for a three-week internship with her earlier this year. “Sen. Atkins is literally so down to earth and so kind and generous,” he said.
In a 2014 statement to the Washington Post, Atkins reflected on her rise from poverty to high office in California. “What that says about our opportunities as Americans and our democracy is profound.”