Home U.S. News A Conversation With Toni Atkins, the Departing State Senate Leader

A Conversation With Toni Atkins, the Departing State Senate Leader

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A Conversation With Toni Atkins, the Departing State Senate Leader

For years, Toni Atkins has been one of the most powerful politicians in California, even though her name is unfamiliar to many people in the state.

A state lawmaker for 14 years representing San Diego, Atkins has served as the speaker of the Assembly and, more recently, as president pro tem of the Senate — the first person in more than a century, and the only woman, to have held both of the Legislature’s top positions.

During her tenure, she has quietly negotiated eight state budgets and helped enact some of California’s most impactful legislation: Medicaid expansions that extend health insurance to all eligible adults, regardless of immigration status. Laws that increase access to reproductive health care and protect providers after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Free meals for public school students. Tax credits for poor families.

Atkins, a Democrat, is leaving the Senate after this year because of term limits, and she is ceding her leadership post next week. Senator Mike McGuire of Healdsburg is expected to succeed her.

But her career in politics is hardly over. A few weeks ago, Atkins announced that she would run in 2026 to succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom, who cannot seek a third term.

She agreed to an exit interview, and we spoke by phone right around the time she was announcing her campaign for governor. I intended to focus on her political legacy, but we ended up talking mostly about her roots in Appalachia. Here’s our chat, lightly edited.

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in a little community in southwest Virginia, Wythe County. My dad was a coal and lead miner, and my mom was a seamstress. We lived in a house with an outhouse and no running water. At about 7 or 8, we moved to the “big city” of Roanoke, but before that we carried our water from a spring.

What brought you to California?

My sister was in the Navy, and she married another Navy guy. He was getting ready to be deployed for eight months, and she was getting ready to deliver their first child. I came to help with her newborn.

That was in 1985, right? It must have been a culture shock.

I had always thought I didn’t fit in. I was too country. I was too poor. And then I came out as L.G.B.T.Q. when I was 17 or 18. I grew up in a community that, really, I did not feel was about me. I thought of California as the future. I couldn’t wait to get here.

How did you get into public service?

I saw an ad for a job at a feminist health center. When I went to the interview, the clinic was blockaded with picketers. I didn’t get that particular job, but a year later the executive director called me back and invited me to go through a training program.

I became the clinic manager, and after about seven years I went to work for Christine Kehoe, the first openly gay person to serve on the San Diego City Council. Helping everyday people get services they needed felt like working on my own hardscrabble life growing up.

You followed your boss onto the council in 2000, and then joined the Legislature in 2010. What have you learned in almost a quarter-century of governing?

To build bridges. San Diego has a Democratic mayor and council now, but when I served we had a Republican majority. I know some people do politics for sport, but politics is how we get work done. I learned that it’s very important to collaborate.

In fact, you’re friendly with State Senator Shannon Grove, a Republican from the Central Valley.

And we agree on hardly anything politically. But we grew up in similar circumstances. In 2022, we worked together to bring Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to California, advancing the ability for kids to learn to read.

Tell me something that might surprise readers about California.

There are parts of California that remind me of where I grew up.

Such as?

Bakersfield. I’m a huge fan of the Bakersfield sound.

What else do you love in this state?

Oh, food in San Francisco. The skyline as you drive into L.A. San Diego, which to this day is so misunderstood. There’s still this thought that it’s some sleepy little military town.

What’s that noise?

My dogs. Joey’s a white terrier, an adopted street dog, and Mia’s a chocolate toy poodle. I got her in March of the year that we went under the pandemic. She was our Covid puppy.

I’ve got to go walk them — they’re sitting here looking at me. Uh-oh, now you’re going to hear the squeaky toy!

If you live in the Bay Area, chances are you cross a lot of bridges. Which one is your favorite, and why?

Tell us at CAtoday@nytimes.com. Please include your name and the city in which you live.


A ranch in Northern California will be transformed into an expansive nature preserve with a network of public hiking trails, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The property, called the Richmond Ranch, includes 3,654 acres of meadows and foothills between the Diablo and Santa Cruz mountains near San Jose. Previously owned by a Chinese company, the land was bought recently by the Conservation Fund, an environmental nonprofit, with the intention of transferring ownership to Santa Clara County and eventually converting the land into a preserve and hiking area.

Conservationists and park officials hope that the preserve will act as an important wildlife corridor for local pumas, elk and badgers. Trails on the property will be incorporated into the growing Bay Area Ridge Trail network, officials say.

“The views are just magnificent,” Eric Ross, a real estate agent for the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, told The Chronicle. “Once we get a few trails through there, it’ll be excellent.”


Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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