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Online Extra: Political Notes: Policy fights await new lesbian CA Senate leader

by Matthew S. Bajko

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, right, was sworn in March 21 by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. Photo: Courtesy Atkins' office
State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, right, was sworn in March 21 by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. Photo: Courtesy Atkins' office  

Policy fights over housing and health care are two of the more controversial issues newly installed lesbian Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) will face in the coming months.

Atkins, 55, last Wednesday became the first female and first LGBT leader of the California Senate. The 48th person to hold the second most powerful post in state government, Atkins is also the first former Assembly speaker in 146 years to be elected to the Senate leadership post.

She was the first LGBT woman to become Assembly speaker when her colleagues elevated her to the position in 2014. Termed out of her Assembly seat in 2016, Atkins was elected to the state Senate that November.

Last year, Atkins made national headlines when she co-sponsored, with gay state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), legislation to create universal health care in the Golden State. Because it lacked a funding plan, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles) killed the bill and sent the proposal to a legislative committee to study ways to pay for it.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported reviving the bill this year faced an "all-but-certain death" as lawmakers still had not figured out how to pay for its estimated $400 billion price tag. Instead, the paper said Democratic lawmakers were "quietly working on a package of up to 20 health care bills" they could pass this year.

That news was also coupled with the release of a legislative report that found it would take up to two decades for California to move to a single-payer model of health care should lawmakers ever adopt such legislation. Governor Jerry Brown, who is leaving office this year, has also raised doubts about the cost of going to a single-payer health care model, making it all but certain his successor will be the one to take up the issue.

When the Bay Area Reporter spoke to Atkins by phone Wednesday, March 14, she said she had not had a chance to read through the legislative report and couldn't comment on its findings. Nonetheless, she said she was committed to reforming the state's health care system as the costs to individuals, employers, and governments are only going to continue to increase.

"I would say I still believe in the vision and reality of single payer. It takes all of us working toward that goal to make it happen," said Atkins, acknowledging that, "We have had a setback" in advancing the legislation in the Legislature.

Noting it took her seven years to pass her 2017 bill that created a permanent source of funding for affordable housing throughout California, Atkins said she is prepared to wage a multi-year legislative battle on reforming health care.

"I would just say I still have the vision of better access to universal health care and in the form of single payer. But it will take us a while to get there if we don't have everybody rolling in the same direction," she said. "We need to heal those relationships."

In the meantime, Atkins raised no objections to the strategy of passing other legislative fixes for the state's health care system while lawmakers devise a way to fund universal health care.

"If people are advancing legislation that helps expand health care and helps people pay for it if they don't have subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, I am going to be supportive of those efforts," said Atkins. "But I am not going to give up the dream for single payer."

Another controversial bill making its way through the Legislature this year is Senate Bill 827 authored by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). It would allow for taller housing developments near public transit stops.

The legislation has drawn intense ire across the state from local officials and residents who fear it will lead to dense, towering projects in suburban neighborhoods with single-family homes. Others, such as the board of directors of the Bay Area's regional transit system BART, have endorsed Wiener's legislation as a common sense method to build more housing by public transit to reduce suburban sprawl and get people out of their cars.

Asked if she supported Wiener's bill, Atkins praised Wiener for tackling the issue but was noncommittal on the legislation. She predicted it would need to be amended in order to pass out of the Legislature.

"You can bet it will see potential changes. I would like to see the bill move forward," she said. "I consider him a real housing champion and not afraid to tackle difficult issues. I haven't taken a position on the bill yet. It is still a work in progress."

During her speech following her swearing-in last week, Atkins pledged to put behind her both the partisan fights between Republicans and Democrats and the rivalry between the Senate and Assembly. She also committed to turn the political possibilities her elevation to speaker represents into legislative achievements.

"But I'm not interested in happy rhetoric. I'll be happy when we get results," said Atkins, who was joined by her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, and her in-laws, Dr. Jack and Kate LeSar, at the ceremony. "And I'm willing to work with anyone willing to shake off the shackles of zero-sum thinking and put some big ideas on the table for the people of California."

Bi US Senate candidate holds local fundraisers
Bisexual Democratic Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema will be on a fundraising swing through the Bay Area this week.

Sinema, a former state lawmaker, was elected to her Phoenix area U.S. House seat in 2012. She is seeking to succeed Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a critic of President Donald Trump who decided not to run for re-election this year.

The group Electing Women Bay Area is hosting a $1,000-a-head lunch for Sinema in Palo Alto Monday afternoon. Monday night in Healdsburg, it is hosting a $1,500 per ticket fundraiser to be split between Sinema and Nevada Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, who is running to unseat Republican Senator Dean Heller come November.

Tuesday (March 27) Sinema will be at a $1,000 per person lunch event in San Francisco, also hosted by Electing Women Bay Area. The donor-based group is focused on supporting Democratic women running for U.S. Senate seats and governorships.

Sinema's fundraising swing through northern California comes a week after the Arizona Republic newspaper reported that her campaign had "quietly donated $33,800 to charity to erase her ties to Ed Buck, a prominent Democratic donor who has come under scrutiny after a male escort died of a drug overdose at his California home last year."

As the Los Angeles Times has reported, 26-year-old Gemmel Moore overdosed last July in Buck's West Hollywood apartment. His death is still under investigation by the police.

Buck, 63, is a former Arizona political activist who has been a top donor to Sinema over the years. The Arizona newspaper, citing federal campaign finance reports, disclosed that in November Sinema's campaign gave $18,800 to UMOM New Day Center, a charity to help the homeless. It also reported that Sinema's Getting Stuff Done political action committee also gave UMOM $15,000.

In a statement to the paper, Sinema's campaign said, "We were saddened to hear that this young man lost his life, and we wish his family peace. While the investigation continues, we've donated the money to the UMOM New Day Center in Arizona."

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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail


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