Political Notes: Atkins makes historic turn as acting CA governor

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday July 10, 2023
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State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, left, served as acting governor July 6 and signed three bills into law, including one by new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas. Photo: From Atkins' Twitter page
State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, left, served as acting governor July 6 and signed three bills into law, including one by new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas. Photo: From Atkins' Twitter page

Lesbian state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) has once again made political history in California. This time, by using her pen as the Golden State's acting governor to sign into law a trio of bills.

With both of her Democratic colleagues out of state July 6 — Governor Gavin Newsom was on vacation and Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis was visiting relatives in Greece — it fell to Atkins to oversee leadership of the state's government last Thursday. It wasn't her first time doing so, as back on July 30, 2014, Atkins was designated acting governor to claim the title of being California's "first openly gay governor," albeit for roughly the nine hours that she served in the ceremonial post that day.

This time around Atkins became the first woman and first openly LGBTQ person serving as acting governor to sign bills into law while doing so.

"I'm thrilled to step into the governor's shoes, though I have better shoes than him," quipped Atkins, 60, during a brief bill-signing ceremony where her wife, Jennifer LeSar, joined her.

A news release issued by the governor's office noted that Atkins is also the first person in 150 years to have served as both Senate President pro Tempore and Assembly speaker. But it had incorrectly reported Atkins was also the first leader of the state Senate to sign bills into law. As Atkins later clarified in a tweet that Thursday, the first to do so was the late state senator Jim Mills in the 1970s.

It meant "that makes two for San Diego!" ballyhooed Atkins, as Mills also represented the Southern California city in the Legislature, first as an assemblymember in the 1960s and later in the Senate. Mills died in 2021 at the age of 93.

As for the three pieces of legislation that Atkins lent her signature to, they all were Assembly bills. AB 354 by Assemblymember Stephanie Nguyen (D-Elk Grove) updates the membership for the Sacramento Regional Transit District board of directors.

AB 410 by Assemblymember Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr., (D-South Los Angeles) addresses Braille signage on motorized scooters, and AB 588 by Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Salinas) addresses who can serve on the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency board. It was the speaker's first bill to be enacted since he took over leadership of the Legislature's lower chamber on June 30.

"These bills impact public transit, shared mobility devices, & local water management will continue our efforts to protect CA & enhance our communities," tweeted Atkins. "I'm happy to be able to help my Assembly colleagues, including @CASpeakerRivas, get their work across the finish line."

Rivas thanked the Newsom administration for supporting AB 588.

"California's water challenges are ongoing. But signing this bill into law ensures residents of Watsonville will be represented in future decisions regarding their region's water systems. It also safeguards the Pajaro Valley agriculture community's representation," stated Rivas, whose Central Coast district was hit by devastating floods this past winter.

As the Bay Area Reporter has previously noted, Atkins will be termed out of office at the end of 2024 and has established a campaign account to seek the lieutenant governorship in 2026. (Kounalakis will be termed out that year and is one of a number of statewide Democratic leaders already running for governor in two years.)

Atkins' turn last week as acting governor prompted questions on if she would also jump into the gubernatorial race. She didn't directly answer, telling reporters "that's a question for another day" and later adding, "I'm going to keep options open."

As for Rivas, he named his new Assembly Democratic Leadership team July 3 and picked gay freshman Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-West Hollywood/Santa Monica) to be the new Democratic Caucus chair. Zbur is the only member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus to be given a leadership post by Rivas; gay Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego) was replaced as the chamber's speaker pro tempore.

"I could not be more proud to be named by @CASpeakerRivas as the new Democratic Caucus Chair for the California State Assembly and to be part of his Democratic Leadership team. #caleg #readytoserve," tweeted Zbur.

Among the nine leadership posts are three Bay Area lawmakers. Assemblymember Diane Papan (D-San Mateo) is assistant majority leader for policy and research. Assemblymember Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City), the first parent of a transgender child to serve in the Legislature, is majority whip.

And Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) is assistant majority whip. Serving as Rivas' second in command in the speaker pro tempore role is Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters).

"The historic diversity of our caucus speaks to the remarkable lived experiences across our great state," stated Rivas. "Our leadership team also reflects this diversity so that we can uplift all residents."

Rounding out his leadership team are Assemblymembers Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) as majority leader, Gregg Hart (D-Santa Barbara) as assistant majority leader, and Josh Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) as assistant majority whip.

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

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