How Toni Atkins made California history

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La July 7, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

How Toni Atkins made California history

From CalMatters politics reporter Alexei Koseff:

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.)

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.

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.”

Legislative union: While Atkins was making history, history is being delayed on another front in the Capitol: A bill to allow the legislative staff to form a union was changed this week so it would not take effect until 2026.

According to CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal, the bill’s author (and former legislative staffer), Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, agreed to the amendment, in consultation with Sen. Dave Cortese, chairperson of the Senate’s labor committee and a co-author on the bill. They did a “deep dive into what it would take to make this work,” and decided to delay its implementation date, McKinnor told Sameea on Thursday.

  • McKinnor: “I just think that we have to get this right, and it’s going to take time for staff to choose a union to represent them, and that part really takes a lot of time.”

A new CalMatters newsletter: We’re adding to our selection of newsletters with a new weekly one from the California Divide team that will focus on the politics and policy of inequality. Read the latest installment here and subscribe here.

Training the next generation: CalMatters has eight summer interns who are working across the organization, including in editorial, photography, membership and development. Read more about this stellar group from our engagement team.


1 A deal on electric truck rules

A fleet of electric vehicles lined up for the Zero Emissions Convoy in Bakersfield on Feb. 23, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A fleet of electric big rigs and other trucks is lined up at an event in Bakersfield on Feb. 23, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

The California Air Resources Board and major truck manufacturers finalized an agreement on Thursday related to the board’s April decision to ban new diesel big rigs and other trucks in California by 2036.

According to CalMatters’ Rachel Becker, the deal avoids a legal battle between the state and the manufacturers, with the board agreeing to relax some requirements for trucks to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key ingredient of smog. Under the agreement, California will bring its 2027 standards for smog-forming pollutants to more closely align with a 2022 federal Environmental Protection Agency rule to cut the pollutant from trucks.

And what does California get? Truck manufacturers agreed not to sue the state over a suite of clean truck rules, or weigh in on lawsuits brought by other parties.

(Back before the board officially moved to shift the state toward zero-emissions trucks, it received pushback from trucking companies who argued that zero-emission big rigs were too expensive, lacked a robust charging network, took too long to charge and were not efficient enough to travel the long ranges needed to transport cargo.)

Both sides, as well as Gov. Newsom, celebrated the compromises.

  • Steven Cliff, the board’s executive director: “It’s great to have them not suing and not helping others in lawsuits. But more important is we ensure that we’re getting the actual reduction benefits associated with the rules.” 
  • Jed Mandel, Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association president: “Through these discussions, there was an opportunity for (the board) to realign with the (Environmental Protection Agency) starting in 2027. And that’s really what led to our sitting down and coming to this agreement.”

Electric vehicle primer: From our engagement team — a lesson-plan-ready version of our explainer on California’s electric vehicle transformation, especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups, as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative. Topics already featured: Wage theft, water and state government.

2 Another complication of COVID

Wexler's Deli inside the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles on Jan. 19, 2022. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
A customer and employee wear masks at Wexler’s Deli inside the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles on Jan. 19, 2022. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

Does an employer’s duty to protect its workers from injury extend to their families?

When it comes to COVID-19, the answer is “no,” the California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, writes CalMatters’ criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara.

The ruling came in a case involving a Bay Area woodworking employee. In May 2020, he was infected with COVID-19 after being exposed at a job site. The employee later infected his wife, who had much worse symptoms and was put on a respirator for a time. The couple sued the company, claiming negligence.

The suit is currently being considered by a federal appellate court. Answering questions sent in by the appeals court, the state Supreme Court wrote that by obligating companies to protect nonemployees from the pandemic, it “would impose an intolerable burden on employers and society in contravention of public policy.”

This is the second big loss for California employees seeking compensation for infecting family members with COVID. During the pandemic, a See’s Candies employee contracted the virus at work and later infected her husband, who died a month later. In 2022, she lost her worker’s comp claim.

In other labor news: On Wednesday, SEIU Local 2015, which represents 450,000 nursing home workers and home care providers, began a series of protests in southern California for more staffing at facilities owned by Brius Healthcare. 

CalMatters reported last week that the state is moving ahead with licensing two dozen nursing homes, despite the lengthy record of problems compiled by their primary owner’s companies, as uncovered by a 2021 CalMatters investigation. Brius has been scrutinized for poor quality care and inadequate staffing, according to federal and state inspection reports, plaintiffs’ attorneys and press accounts. SEIU Local 2015 says it will hold nine protests in July in cities that include Claremont, Inglewood and Los Angeles.

3 Meet Assemblymember Liz Ortega

Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a San Leandro Democrat, addresses reporters on newly unveiled legislation on taxing the rich, during a press conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 23, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Assemblymember Liz Ortega addresses reporters during a press conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 23, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

By her own account, Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Democrat from Hayward, shouldn’t be in the Legislature. Born in Guadalajara, she arrived in the U.S. with her mom and brother when she was three. After her parents reconnected in San Diego, Ortega’s family moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland. She learned to speak English by watching soap operas (“by the time I got to kindergarten, I was fluent in drama”), attended community college and became a single mother at 21. 

“For all those reasons, all these steps along the way, I just can’t believe that I’m here.”

But after a decade working at the Service Employees International Union and later lobbying for low-wage workers at the University of California, Ortega ran for a newly redistricted seat in the Assembly and won in 2022. 

As a new legislator, she is getting involved in two big issues: The opioid epidemic and labor rights. Read on for the highlights of my interview, condensed for clarity and length.

What are your legislative priorities now?

At the top of my list there is my bill related to making Narcan — a life-saving drug that’s addressing the fentanyl crisis that we’re in — affordable. The FDA announced that they were going to make brands, like Narcan, available over the counter…. But not everyone can afford it. So I quickly jumped into AB 1060. (On Thursday, the state announced it’s taking the first step to producing its own generic naloxone.) 

AB 800 is a workplace readiness bill that helps educate high school students about their rights on the job. As legislators, we pass all these laws for workers but we forget about our youth and the fact that they are actually a big part of the workforce.

During your campaign, you came out against Newsom’s CARE courts. What do you think about them since they’ve launched?

My concern was that when I hear “court,” I hear criminalization of people of color. I also was concerned about our healthcare system…. Having talked to doctors, nurses and police officers, I know that there’s this revolving door of picking up somebody…. That’s why I was not feeling it. It’s missing a lot of nuts and bolts….

(But) I’ve talked to more family members, who say, “Absolutely, we need to do something.” So that part I have learned more and thinking a little bit more differently about it. But the part around the resources and are we ready for it — it’s still very much there.

What made you get into politics or community organizing?

When we got our immigration papers when President Reagan passed amnesty, I had to fill out all those papers and sit in line at 4 a.m. with my parents and fill out all those documents. My mom and dad recognized my ability to translate really quickly, so they said, “You’re not just going to do it for us, you’re going to do it for everyone else.”

So I remember being in (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m nine!”

What pushed you to run for office?

In 2013 or 2014, I worked with then-Sen. Ricardo Lara. We worked on a really important bill around contracting out work. That’s where I learned my biggest lesson in terms of power dynamics….

Negotiations happen in the middle of the night when most people are asleep. If we don’t have someone that’s willing to pick up that phone, or be in that room and be that voice in the middle of the night, then working families don’t get heard — they get left behind. I didn’t want that to continue to be the case, which is one of the reasons I decided to run.

To learn more about California’s new legislators, read my prior interviews: Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a San Fernando Valley Democrat; and Assemblymembers Corey Jackson, a Moreno Valley Democrat; Joe Patterson, a Granite Bay Republican; and Stephanie Nguyen, an Elk Grove Democrat.


CalMatters Commentary

A health insurance rule known as prior authorization can delay urgent treatment. The Legislature can fix it, writes Ocean McIntyre, a space science communicator in the Los Angeles area.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Newsom, Bonta call for DOJ investigation into migrant flights // The Sacramento Bee

Medi-Cal’s fragmented system can make moving a nightmare // California Healthline

Private California colleges admit legacy students in big numbers // San Francisco Chronicle

Ninth Circuit conservative judges say homelessness is ‘paralyzing local communities’ // Los Angeles Times

LA spent $40M to house 1,400 people in motels — 6% landed permanent housing // LAist

In San Joaquin Valley, addressing inequities in urban planning is a tough task // KVPR

Three of fastest-growing Asian communities are in Bay Area // San Francisco Chronicle

Did D.A. Brooke Jenkins deliver on vow to end open-air drug dealing in SF? // The San Francisco Standard

Hope and uncertainty linger as CA turns page on state-run youth prisons // AP News

San Jose worker strike looms while council goes on recess // San Jose Spotlight

Santa Barbara County considers ‘death penalty’ for cannabis farms // SFGATE

FBI probe expands to Oakland: Housing cop implicated in police scandal // East Bay Times

Opinion: A message from disaster-hit Pajaro: ‘It’s about basic dignity.’ // Newsweek

See you next week


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