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Trailblazing Sen. Toni Atkins Makes California History (Once Again)



Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins speaks in the Senate chambers of the California State Capitol on Dec. 5, 2022. (CalMatters/Martin do Nascimento)
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It wasn’t Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ first turn standing in for the governor of California while he was out of the state. (That came in 2014 when she was Assembly speaker and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel tried to get her to invade Oregon during her 10 hours in charge.)

Alexei Koseff

But the San Diego Democrat did break some new ground this time when she signed a trio of bills into law Thursday, becoming the first openly LGBTQ person to do so in California.

“I’m thrilled to step into the governor’s shoes,” Atkins said during a brief ceremony at a legislative office building in downtown Sacramento, “though I have better shoes than him.”

With Gov. Gavin Newsom on vacation/another political tour of red states and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis visiting family in Greece, Atkins is momentarily in charge as acting governor. It is usually a blissfully quiet responsibility — although Kounalakis herself signed a last-minute measure to extend eviction protections last year, the first woman in California history to sign a bill into law.

(Atkins is the first woman and first openly LGBTQ person to lead the California State Senate, as well as the third woman and first openly LGBTQ person to be Assembly Speaker.) 

The legislation Atkins signed — dealing with the membership of a regional transit board and a local water agency, as well as Braille signage on motorized scooters — doesn’t have nearly the same urgent statewide implications. Rather, the Newsom administration, which famously loves to make history, was having fun with a longtime political ally.

Atkins posed for photographs at the signing desk with her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, and one audience member compared her to former President Abraham Lincoln. It was an opportunity, Atkins said, for Californians to see the diversity of the state’s citizens reflected in positions of power and influence.

“It’s long overdue, frankly, particularly for women to be in these roles,” she said. “It is important to be in these positions and to claim them.”

The event, naturally, prompted speculation about whether Atkins might seek a more permanent tenure in the governor’s office when she terms out of the Senate in 2024.

A growing field of potential candidates is already eyeing the next gubernatorial race, which is three years away. While Atkins hasn’t announced any plans yet, like many California politicians, she has an open campaign account for lieutenant governor where she is raising money.

“That’s a question for another day,” Atkins said, though she later acknowledged that she hopes to continue serving in elected office in some capacity. “I’m going to keep options open.”

About the Author

Alexei covers Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature, and California government from Sacramento. He joined CalMatters in January 2022 after previously reporting on the Capitol for The Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he broke the story of Newsom’s infamous dinner at The French Laundry restaurant. Alexei is a Bay Area native and attended Stanford University. He speaks fluent Spanish.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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