Political Notes: After near 14-year run, CA Legislature to be bereft of an LGBTQ chamber leader

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday September 11, 2023
Share this Post:
State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, center, walked down the stairs with her successor, pro tem designee Senator Mike McGuire, after the announcement was made August 28. Photo: Courtesy CA Senate Rules Photography/Jeff Walters
State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, center, walked down the stairs with her successor, pro tem designee Senator Mike McGuire, after the announcement was made August 28. Photo: Courtesy CA Senate Rules Photography/Jeff Walters

With the top two posts in the California Legislature to be held by straight male lawmakers come 2024, it will bring to an end a remarkable run of having a LGBTQ leader in one of the statehouse's two chambers. Since 2010, there has been an out legislator presiding over either the Assembly or state Senate in all but one of the past 13 years.

The stepping down of lesbian Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) next year will also mark the first time in six years that the statehouse will be bereft of a female chamber leader. It will bring to an end having a Southern California legislator leading either chamber for the first time since 1998. That February saw former assemblymember Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) become assembly speaker.

He would be the first in a long line of Los Angeles County legislators who would go on to become Assembly speaker over the next 16 years, with gay former assemblymember John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) becoming the first out legislator to hold the post beginning on March 1, 2010. Atkins would end the streak of L.A. speakers when she succeeded Pérez on May 12, 2014.

She served in the leadership role through March 7, 2016. Elected that November to the state Senate, Atkins became the chamber's leader on March 21, 2018. She and Perez are the only out legislators to have ever led either the state Assembly or Senate; and 2017 was the only year in the past 13 when one of them was not presiding over their chamber, albeit Atkins only did so briefly in 2016.

Atkins is the first woman and the first person in 150 years to lead both legislative bodies. She is also one of only two women to have led either chamber of the Legislature, as Karen Bass, now mayor of Los Angeles, had been Assembly speaker between May 13, 2008 and March 1, 2010.

Due to Atkins being termed out of her 39th Senate District seat next year, her handing over the leadership reigns was inevitable. She announced August 28 Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) as the pro tem designee until she officially transitions out of the speakership role sometime next year.

"It is a privilege to be the Senate leader. Now, the time has come to plan for the next leader, and the Senate Democratic Caucus is unified in its decision to name Senator Mike McGuire as the pro tem designee," stated Atkins. "I am confident that this will be a seamless transition, and that Senator McGuire will continue to guide the Senate and California down a path of success."

McGuire praised Atkins as "one of the most effective and thoughtful leaders of our time. She's a California trailblazer, a role model for millions, and a dear friend. We will work hand-in-glove to finish out the important work that we have all fought so hard for all year — and to ensure a seamless transition into the next chapter of this great institution."

Tony Hoang, executive director of statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, praised Atkins for being "a trailblazing LGBTQ+ leaders and an invaluable partner" in a statement. Among her achievements, he noted, have been "protecting transgender youth and their families, to reducing health care disparities, to protecting the right to bodily autonomy and currently combating the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ hate and policies across California."

As for McGuire, he noted that the North Bay legislator has "a lifetime 100% score" on EQCA's annual report cards of legislators' votes on LGBTQ bills it tracks. Hoang added that his organization is "committed to continuing to work with him to ensure that all LGBTQ+ Californians are heard from and supported across the state. Equality California looks forward to working with him and his future leadership team to continue the historic advancements that we have secured for LGBTQ+ Californians."

On behalf of himself and his wife, first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Governor Gavin Newsom praised Atkins "for her tremendous leadership and partnership these past four years, and for her friendship." As for McGuire, Newsom called him "a proven leader who has been a tireless champion for communities ravaged by wildfire, expanding educational opportunities, building affordable housing, addressing homelessness, and other priorities for everyday Californians."

McGuire will serve alongside Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Salinas), first elected to his Central Coast legislative seat in 2018 and able to serve in it through 2030. Rivas took over the leadership role of his chamber this summer from Assemblymember Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who is termed out of office next year.

The leadership changes mark a return of seeing Northern California legislators serve in the powerful roles; the last one was former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, now Sacramento's mayor, who stepped down in 2014. But McGuire won't be the pro tem for too long, as he will be termed out of his Senate seat in 2026.

It means there is an opportunity to see a return of a LGBTQ leader in the Legislature within two years. Two gay Democratic senators had been rumored to want to succeed Atkins and could vie to succeed McGuire: John Laird of Santa Cruz and Steve Padilla of San Diego.

Padilla, a former Chula Vista mayor and city councilmember, won election last year to his 18th Senate District seat. Up for reelection in 2026, he could serve in his chamber through 2034.

When asked by the Bay Area Reporter about the next leadership vote, Padilla demurred and focused his comments on the handing over of the Senate gavel from Atkins to McGuire.

"Toni Atkins has been a close personal friend for decades and will be remembered as one of the most impactful leaders this state has seen. Under her leadership, California has lead the nation protecting the rights of some of the most vulnerable and made unprecedented investments in the state's climate future," stated Padilla. "Senator McGuire has been a tireless advocate for the people of California. I am confident that under his stewardship, California will reach new heights and I am proud to support him in that endeavor in any way I can. I am excited to work with him as we continue to make California a more equitable place for all."

Laird, who led the state's natural resources agency under former governor Jerry Brown, won election to his 17th Senate District seat in 2020. Because he previously served in the Assembly, Laird is only eligible under the state's term limits law to seek reelection to a final four-year term next November. Thus, he is expected to depart the Senate in 2028.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.