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Atkins Sworn In as State Sen. Leader

by Matthew S. Bajko

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins
State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins  

Lesbian state Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) took her oath of office Wednesday to become the first female and first LGBT president pro tem of the California Senate. She is the 48th person to hold the second most powerful post in state government.

Atkins, 55, takes over the gavel from state Senator Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), who is running against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) this year. Following tradition, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye of the California Supreme Court administered the oath of office.

Joining her for the occasion were Atkins' twin sister and her nephew who live in Tennessee. It was the second time they had traveled to California to see Atkins break through a political glass ceiling, as in 2014 she was sworn in as the first lesbian speaker of the Assembly.

As part of the ceremony, Atkins invited a young singer from San Diego to perform Michael Jackson's song "Man in the Mirror." The lyrics resonate with today's political environment and the ongoing sexual harassment allegations in various industries, Atkins told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview last Wednesday.

"The song says to look in the mirror as change starts with yourself," said Atkins, a former San Diego City Council member who briefly served as the city's interim mayor. "We all have a role to play in this culture change."

The state Legislature has been rocked by allegations of lawmakers and lobbyists sexually harassing women and acting inappropriately with some men. The revelations have led a number of male lawmakers to resign and one female legislator to take a leave of absence.

"We have a moment right now as it relates to issues of sexual harassment and workplace history. We can seize this moment," said Atkins.

Her ascension to the top leadership position in the Legislature's upper chamber comes not just as women are speaking out against their sexual harassers, but it also comes as the LGBT community is under attack by the Trump administration. Her being given a platform to speak out nationally on both issues is not lost on Atkins.

"I think, certainly, in the universe how often do things seem to come together in a moment of time that seem to make sense or make a statement. Maybe the universe is making a statement," she said. "I do think it is about time and I really am appreciative my colleagues agreed."

With the number of female legislators in the Statehouse at a record low in recent years, Atkins said she has been pleased to see the large number of women running for public office this year. As the B.A.R. has noted previously, a record number of lesbians, at seven, are running for state legislative seats in California this year.

"I think it is great, in general, that more women are stepping forward to run, and I think it is great, of course, we are seeing more LGBTQ candidates step forward and run," said Atkins.

The cultural and political upheavals of recent months are benefiting such candidates, said Atkins. A native of Virginia, she said she was "so proud" to see her home state last fall elect the first out transgender state lawmaker in the country.

Yet she is also cognizant that the hard won protections and advancements that the LGBT community has made in recent years are in jeopardy under the Trump administration. Numerous federal agencies have been rolling back LGBT protections since last year, noted Atkins.

"Always remember the world can change, and you too will once again live in fear," said Atkins. "This is not something our LGBT community has had to deal with in recent decades. The fact we have so many protections and rights now, it really is a short time in historical perspective."


Standing up to Trump

Nonetheless, Atkins pledged to continue to stand up against the president.

"Our residents need to understand we have their backs," she said.

LGBT lawmakers and advocates celebrated Atkins' historic elevation as speaker pro tem. Rick Zbur, the executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy organization Equality California, called Atkins a "groundbreaking" legislator more than qualified to lead the state Senate.

"It's hard to imagine a more qualified and effective leader shattering these two glass ceilings in the California Senate today. But I know for certain that there isn't anyone more respected," stated Zbur. "Throughout her career, Senator Atkins has been a role model for her constituents, for other elected officials, for the LGBTQ community, and for the next generation of change makers."

Noting her upbringing in a rural part of the Appalachian Mountains, Zbur added, "There are young girls and LGBTQ children across California - and back in Appalachia - who will see the news out of Sacramento today and know that their futures are a whole lot brighter because of the trails Toni has blazed."

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) told the B.A.R. that, despite the gains the LGBT community has made in recent decades, it politically still lacks fair representation in city halls and statehouses across the country, not to mention Congress.

"This is a huge day for the LGBT community," said Wiener, who considers Atkins not just a mentor but also a friend. "Sometimes it is really tempting to think we have plenty of LGBT people in positions of power and it doesn't really matter anymore and that is just not true."

He noted that there have only been one U.S. senator and one governor in the country's history who are out members of the LGBT community. California has only sent one LGBT person to Congress, added Wiener, who also pointed to the fact there is only one LGBT person on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, seen globally as a gay mecca.

"We still have a lack of representation, so having the first LGBT leader of the Senate in the history of California is a major step," said Wiener. "Toni is going to be fantastic."

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