Senator Toni Atkins of California started out behind the scenes. She first supported another woman running for office in San Diego, but she never imagined running for office herself. Back when she was in college, she hadn’t intended to get into politics. Instead Atkins focused on healthcare and running a women’s clinic after graduation. But after supporting another woman candidate, she learned the ropes of leading a community. Ultimately, she decided to run for office at the suggestion of her mentor, Chris Kehoe. Sometimes it just takes that nudge. Someone just tells you, “You should run.” And Atkins did.
Her journey from director of services at Womancare Health Center to state senator of California centered her focus on issues like women’s reproductive rights and transgender rights. Today she has passed legislation to advance both.
Senator Toni Atkins Career Timeline
1984 – Graduated with a BA in political science from Emory and Henry College
1985 – Joined the staff at Womancare Health Center in San Diego
2000 – Elected to the San Diego City Council
2010 – Elected to the California State Assembly
2014 – Took over as Speaker of the Assembly
2016 – Elected to California’s 39th State Senate District
Q&A with Inspirational Women Leader Senator Toni Atkins
Q: How did you decide to run for public office? What inspired you?
A: While I was a political science major in college, I never actually thought about running for office. I wanted to be involved in community organizing. But what got me engaged is supporting a woman who was running for office in San Diego, for city council. She was the first open lesbian, or member of the LGBT community, to run for city council and actually get elected. I was part of a democratic club, so I was really engaged in the community and that took me to support her, and then I ended up as a staff member and eventually, as she termed out of that office, she actually told me that I needed to run.
I still didn’t have the plan that I would run for office, but she told me that I should run and I’d worked with her for seven years, and by then I’d worked on almost every part of the district in the community and it really prepared me to run for office, so I did.
Q: How did you get started and develop a platform on which you could build a campaign?
A: Because I got to work with an elected official, I was out in every part of the community working on issues related to housing, infrastructure, neighborhood planning. I came to it from having done the job in an office so by the time I decided to run, I had a lot of contacts, I had a lot of community leaders who wanted to support me. My boss, who was the elected official terming out of office, told me I needed to run so I had her support. And, of course, I knew the issues. I knew the issues in the district. I knew what the community wanted. So, coming up with a platform, I already had it, I was working in it. And it was to continue to do the work that we had started.
Q: What challenges did you face?
A: What’s interesting is, even though I had all of that going for me, I knew many people in the community, I had the support of the incumbent city council member to replace her, I still had to run a campaign, but I felt like I was lightyears ahead because I had been involved in the office.
I had done the work, but I still ended up running against four other people, and one of the people I ran against was a former city council member from that district and he decided to run for re-election. He was pretty popular when he was in office, so it was a serious campaign and mostly I focused on the community and the people. I walked precincts. I knew that it was going to be a ground campaign and I walked precincts and I raised money and the platform I knew because of my work in the community. So I didn’t just come out of the private sector or somewhere and decide to run, I was already sort of an insider but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
Q: Over the last few months in particular, we’ve seen more women running for office and getting involved in that process. How do you feel that will end up shaping the political sphere in this country?
A: Women make a difference. When you take any marginalized community, or in the case of gender, our numbers are much less than our male counterparts. And when you’re at the table—women govern differently, they do. Women have a different perspective and women bring to the table issues that tend to effect broader groups of people. It may be our socialization, it may be that we tend to be mothers and sisters and daughters and we tend to respond differently to policy issues. It can’t help but change society in ways that are really important. It’s a critical campaign and what we do know is women, when they run, win as often as men. It’s just that women aren’t running.
If there’s an upside to what’s going on in our world today, with this federal election, it’s that people have been galvanized to get involved. So if there’s a silver lining, it’s been a call to action and we’re seeing a lot more women get involved because of, frankly, the war that seems to be waged against women and certainly through the actions that are being taken against Planned Parenthood.
Q: Were there any specific challenges that you faced as a woman, and especially as an openly gay woman, in running for the state Senate in California?
A: You know, I have a different experience and example than many because I wasn’t the first. I come on the heels of people like Chris Kehoe, who was the first open lesbian elected to the city council, and then she went to the assembly and the Senate, but there were other people. Sheila Kuehl out of Los Angeles was the first open lesbian to run for the assembly and then the Senate. I stand on the shoulders of pioneers who actually made it a lot easier, and for me, in San Diego, running for the Senate, it was more about: How has she represented the community? Is she effective? What is her record? Has she gotten things done? It was less about whether I was a woman, it was less about my being a member of the LGBT community.
So I didn’t have that particular issue, but there are many, many people, or women, who do—across the country. Not every community is like us in San Diego. We have a strong tradition of electing women, in the assembly, in the Senate, for Congress. California has two U.S. senators that are women. So I think the experience in California is different. We have all of these caucuses representing all of these ethnic groups as well as gender and the LGBT community so when you go to see if there is support for you to run, it really becomes a discussion between ethnic, LGBT and gender caucuses. What I would say is the woman and the gender issue should trump a lot of those things because we need more women in office period. We need to make a priority out of women being elected.
Our women’s caucus is smaller in numbers but we’ve gotten stronger because there was a whole group of young, dynamic, well not all young, but many younger women, but other women as well, that just got elected in the assembly that are just full of energy about supporting other women. I feel the dynamic of our women’s caucus in Sacramento has changed and there is a real focused effort and drive on supporting other women first and foremost. That discussion has happened and I think it’s going to trend in the right direction, I’m very positive, so I’m excited about that.
Q: For young women who are interested in elected office, can you describe a day in the life of a state senator? What does your day generally look like?
A: It’s a lot of balancing between the committees I sit on. It’s about meeting with constituents who come up from the districts for lobby days. It’s about meeting stakeholders representing all kinds of organizations from seniors to veterans to women. They all want to come and talk with you about their agenda, their issues, a specific piece of legislation. It’s about working on legislation. You have bill ideas, you have to meet with lots of people to get support for it. If my bill’s coming to committee tomorrow, I need to make sure the members of that committee are going to support my bill, so I’ve got to make time to go talk to them. We have hearings.
It is incredibly busy but it’s busy in a way that you’re always learning, you’re always faced with new challenges, and new perspectives from people from all over a really diverse state. It’s just a constant learning environment so it’s challenging but it’s incredibly rewarding. I could not pay to get the education I’m getting as a public official. I’ve been doing a lot of this work for well over 20 years so I have deep knowledge on a number of issues but what you find is there are so many issues. It’s so rewarding. It can be tough. It can be disappointing when you don’t move forward with something you think is so important, but there’s nothing like it when you’re able to get something done that makes a difference in real people’s lives.
Q: Can college women experience a day in the life?
A: We have people shadow us all the time. I just had a young woman who grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina shadow me on Thursday and all with the intent that we hope young people are going to get into leadership and civic life so anytime there are young people that want to get a chance to visit—many public officials, elected officials, will do that because they know the value.
Q: What are some of the best ways that you’ve found to be an advocate for marginalized communities? I know you’ve done some legislation for transgender rights and victims of domestic violence, so how did you go about crafting those things and working with those issues?
A: I think it’s listening to the community and finding out what the issues are. I did a birth certificate piece of legislation for the transgender community and as I started to talk to people in the community, I learned there were so many issues facing the transgender community that I was just quite unaware of, and I’m a member of the LGBT community, but the transgender community has had some particular challenges. So I did the birth certificate issue and that led me to realizing there were issues around death certificates when the gender was in question, so I then went on and did the death certificate piece of legislation.
And this year I’m doing a really incredible piece of legislation that follows on the heels of both of those, which is adding a third gender marker for documentation, legal documents in California. So I’m really excited about that but it has been a progression.
Q: Is there a particular piece of legislation you helped to pass that you found most rewarding?
A: Aside from the things I just mentioned on the transgender birth certificates and death certificates, I have to say it was a piece of legislation, AB-154, which was expanding the ability for women to get first trimester abortion services by allowing nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, and physicians’ assistants to do first trimester abortions. They have to go through a training program, they have to have the experience in terms of the type of healthcare, but they are now able because of the study we did in California to actually do those procedures, and that increases access for people in all parts of California, rural parts of California.
We have 58 counties in California. More than two-thirds of those counties did not have an abortion provider. Expanding the scope so that practitioners could work to the top of their skillset—it’s one of my most important pieces of legislation, and particularly because I used to run three women’s health clinics, so I feel like I came kind of full circle.
Q: What issues do you find are most pertinent to address with this new federal administration? How do we come together to start combatting those issues?
A: First and foremost we’re very concerned about healthcare and the Affordable Care Act. We are concerned about immigration issues because California has really led the way to support our residents, all of our residents, including our undocumented residents. So immigration is a huge issue. And thirdly I would say climate change and our policies around climate change.
What we’re doing about all of those things is we are in an investigative phase. You know we don’t know everything that the federal administration is going to do. In some respects we’re waiting to see what happens, but we are preparing. We are researching. We have legal representation. We are going to support the values of California as best we can. We don’t make federal law but we have a number of pieces of legislation to try to make sure we’re being as supportive as we can to the communities that are so afraid—providing legal representation for immigrants. We’re engaged in evaluation, assessment and we’re going to try to make sure that we’re protecting our California values and our California residents.
Q: At College Magazine we’re working together with EMILY’s List, Emerge America, Human Rights Campaign, Higher Heights, She Should Run, Victory Fund and IGNITE on an initiative to fight for equal representation in congress called “50 by 2050.” What are your thoughts on the goal of achieving 50% of women in congress by 2050?
A: This project, 50 by 2050, is critical. I would just urge women to consider public service, and there’s lots of ways to be engaged in public service. One of the most important aspects that I didn’t mention but I think is really important is mentoring. To mentor someone, to bring someone along behind you, just as Chris Kehoe did for me, we owe that to younger women, and not just younger women, but older women who have had long careers. I helped Dr. Shirley Weber get elected into the assembly. She had an almost 40-year career in education at San Diego State University. She was prepared to retire and I told her, “You need to run. We need your expertise on education.” It’s about mentoring up and down and sideways to get women engaged in this process.
How to Become a Powerful Woman Leader
1. Follow your passion
“The one great thing about public service and elected office is whatever experience you have in life will really be helpful dependent on what office you want to run for, whether its school board or city council or a community college board or any of those things,” said Atkins. “The big question is why do you want to run for office?”
2. Get involved in a local campaign
“There’s nothing like gaining the skills that you get from volunteering on a campaign and it gives you a sense of what issues are there in whatever community,” said Atkins.
Ready to take action? Sign up for 50 by 2050 to learn how.
How to Connect with Senator Atkins
Get updates on http://sd39.senate.ca.gov.
Sign up for her newsletter.
Write her a letter or give her a call:
State Capitol, Room 4072
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 651-4039
Fax: (916) 651-4939
San Diego District Office
701 B Street, Suite 1840
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 645-3133
Fax: (619) 645-3144