SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Sen. Toni Atkins became the first woman and first LGBT person to lead the California Senate on Wednesday, pledging to work toward changing the Capitol culture amid a reckoning over sexual misconduct.
A rainbow flag representing gay pride hung next to the California and U.S. flags in the Capitol rotunda as the San Diego Democrat was formally elected Senate pro tempore and took the oath of office, administered by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
“It’s the first time. And it’s about time,” said Atkins, who is a lesbian. But, she said, “I came to the Senate to make progress, not history.”
Atkins takes over as the Legislature faces ongoing scrutiny over its handling of sexual misconduct, upcoming budget negotiations and the 2018 elections.
Democrats lost supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly when three lawmakers resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Some lobbyists and female legislative staffers have fiercely criticized the Legislature for fostering a culture where women don’t feel comfortable coming forward to report sexual harassment or abuse.
“To some extent, we bear the burden of past sins too often swept under the rug,” Atkins said. “We can’t change the past. But we can and we should be judged on how we shape the future.”
Her election as president pro tem is a return to legislative leadership for the 55-year-old Atkins, who was Assembly speaker from 2014 to 2016. She ran a women’s health clinic in San Diego before turning full time to local and state politics.
Last year, she successfully pushed ground-breaking legislation that created a third “non-binary” gender option on driver’s licenses and a fee on some real-estate transaction documents to pay for affordable housing.
Atkins replaces Los Angeles Democrat Kevin de Leon, who is leaving because of term limits and is running for U.S. Senate.
“She knows what it’s like to struggle; how it feels to have the deck stacked against you from the very beginning,” de Leon said, comparing her upbringing in poverty in Appalachian Virginia to his own in San Diego.
Atkins took a subtle swipe at President Donald Trump and his pledge to “make America great again.”
“There will always be people in this line of work who cling to a gauzy version of a simpler past,” she said.
The “good old days” are now, she said, pointing to California’s thriving economy as the hub of the entertainment and technology industries.
De Leon has relished fights with the Trump administration and has used his position to promote a wide variety of legislation aimed at limiting its influence in California, most notably a “sanctuary state” bill that restricts cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Atkins has staked out a more reserved public persona and has said she’ll be largely focused, at least initially, on managing the Senate’s internal affairs. She told reporters that she’ll be strategic about the fights she picks with the Trump administration.
“Clearly when we have to stand our ground for the right reasons and the right purposes, we do it,” Atkins said. “But when we don’t need to, I don’t need to antagonize my Republican colleagues.”