SACRAMENTO (AP) — San Diego Sen. Toni Atkins was tapped Thursday by fellow state Senate Democrats to replace Kevin de Leon and become the chamber’s first female leader amid scrutiny over the Legislature’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations.
De Leon, who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, announced Atkins as his successor but did not say when it will happen next year. Atkins will need to be elected by senators but that’s perfunctory since Democrats have 27 of 40 seats.
Term-limited legislative leaders often transfer power to their successor during their last year in office.
“For nearly four years, it’s been a profound honor to lead a unified, progressive and collaborative California state Senate,” de Leon said in his statement.
Atkins said she would work to make California “a place of opportunity for everyone.”
Putting a woman in charge could boost Democrats’ credibility in handling a burgeoning sexual misconduct scandal in the Capitol, said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. The Legislature, though, faces accusations of a pervasive culture of harassment dating back years, including when Atkins led the Assembly.
“Whether she was policing this properly in her previous leadership role or not, she will absolutely have the pressure to do so this time around,” Nalder said.
De Leon, meanwhile, could avoid some scrutiny in how the Senate handles the controversy going forward if he is no longer in charge. As the Senate battled the claims that harassment complaints are swept under the rug, it emerged that de Leon’s one-time roommate, Sen. Tony Mendoza, was the target of several complaints. Any perception of wrongdoing by de Leon could damage his credibility in the race against Feinstein, one of the most prominent women in California and U.S. politics.
“As is often the case, women get called in to do the clean up,” Nalder said. “Toni Atkins will have to be the face of that. It’s less likely (de Leon) will be in news stories about what the Legislature is doing in regards to sexual harassment and that benefits him.”
If Atkins takes over in the spring, de Leon would be freed from the need to run the state Senate, giving him more time to travel outside Sacramento and make appearances around the state on behalf of his U.S. Senate campaign, said Mark Keppler, director of The Maddy Institute at California State University, Fresno.
“His biggest challenge is not the need to show legislative accomplishments — he has several — but name ID,” Keppler said.
Atkins may have a unique opportunity to make her mark once Gov. Jerry Brown, who is “a unique force at the state Capitol,” leaves office next year, potentially giving the Legislature an opportunity to assert itself, Keppler said.
De Leon is barred by term limits from seeking another term in the Legislature.
Atkins, 55, is in her first term as a senator after six years in the Assembly, where she was the first openly gay woman to serve as speaker. She will become the first lesbian pro tem in the Senate. She’ll be formally elected president pro tem in an election in January, De Leon said.
Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Atkins moved west and was a health care administrator in San Diego before turning fulltime to politics. Earlier this year, she was a driving force behind a successful push to raise money for subsidized housing by charging $75 for many real-estate transactions.
She also was the co-author of a contentious bill that would replace traditional health insurance companies with a single government-funded health care plan for everyone in the state.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Pat Bates, of Laguna Niguel, called Atkins “a formidable political force” and said she hopes the leaders can work together to address issues including sexual harassment.
“There is no place for harassment in the workplace, including the Legislature,” Bates said.
Sen. Connie Leyva, a Chino Democrat who had previously said she’d seek the pro tem position, said she decided a few weeks ago to back Atkins to ensure a woman would get the job. A woman brings an important perspective at a time of heightened attention to sexual misconduct, she said.
“We’ve never had a woman in the state senate as president pro tem,” Leyva said. “I don’t think that’s because we haven’t had qualified women.”
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