Toni Atkins is set to make history as the first person in more than 100 years to lead both houses of the California Legislature. While no one expects her to erase the Capitol’s deep rivalries, she is well positioned to tamp them down.
Shortly after her election to the Assembly in 2010, Democrat Toni Atkins of San Diego came to Sacramento for a new lawmakers’ orientation. She’s never forgotten the adage imparted by a veteran lawmaker: “The Republicans are our opponents. But the Senate is our enemy.”
Those words reflect a reality that is entrenched for Capitol insiders, yet almost invisible to the outside world: The two houses of the Legislature are long-standing rivals.
Yes, the Senate and Assembly are both ruled by Democrats. And yes, the two chambers must cooperate to pass any new laws. But that hasn’t stopped a culture of one-upmanship for decades. The result can be substantive—feuding houses kill each other’s bills—or petty—the Assembly and Senate once broke for summer recess on different weeks because their leaders couldn’t even agree on the calendar.
Now Atkins is set to make history as the first person in more than 100 years to lead both houses of the Legislature—something only two other people have done, both during California’s early years of statehood. She was Assembly speaker from 2014 to 2016, and becomes Senate leader on March 21—also becoming the first woman and first openly gay person to lead the upper house.
While no one expects her tenure to erase the Legislature’s deep rivalries, Atkins is well positioned to tamp them down. She’s taking the Senate reins just as changes to term limits have begun to silo legislators in each house. Previously, many lawmakers moved between the Assembly and Senate as their terms expired. Now that they can seek re-election in the same house for up to 12 years, they’re more inclined to stay put.
“If anybody can bridge that gap, it’s her,” said Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio, who saw the Legislature’s rivalries up close as an aide to former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.
“She understands the dynamics of the Assembly… She has years of cat-herding experience… But most importantly, she has a relationship with the Speaker.”
Most recent Senate and Assembly leaders emerged from separate spheres of power, with little prior rapport. But Atkins and current Speaker Anthony Rendon were Assembly colleagues for four years. They worked together closely to craft a $7.5 billion water bond in 2014, an effort that required navigating an array of geographic and political interests to create a bipartisan plan. Along the way, Rendon said he came to appreciate Atkins’ thoughtful style, as well as her love for southern literature and college basketball. When she ran for Senate in 2016, she passed the speakership to him.
“We worked really well together,” Rendon said. “She was someone I leaned on, when I got to Sacramento, for advice and for help.”
The water bond was one of her key accomplishments as speaker during a tenure otherwise plagued by frequent rebellion within her ranks. Atkins couldn’t achieve her own priority in 2015: to fund affordable housing development via a new fee to some real estate transactions (she persisted as a senator and prevailed last year).
In the Assembly, “my focus had to become, ‘What are we trying to get done for the whole body?’ And so I couldn’t spend the time on my housing bill,” she said. “Now maybe I could’ve threatened people, but that’s not my way.”
Atkins also couldn’t persuade her caucus to support a high-profile climate change bill in 2015 backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leader Kevin de León. SB 350 sought to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewable sources to generate electricity, while slashing California’s oil consumption. Many Assembly Democrats balked at the oil provision.
Atkins had to tell de Leon that the votes weren’t there, igniting a major feud between the two houses. The Assembly passed the bill after the oil piece was removed—an industry win and a ding on de León’s environmental record. Months later, at a charity event where lawmakers publicly roast each other, de Leon lobbed a brutal comeback.
“Did you know that WSPA stands for Western States Petroleum Association?” he said. “And all this time I thought it meant We Specialize in Purchasing Assemblymembers.”
Since then, the progressive Senate has passed several bills that have stalled or been watered down in the more moderate Assembly, including legislation to create a single-payer health care system (which Atkins co-authored), get 100 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources, and limit how local law enforcers cooperate with immigration agents.
Rendon said his house grew frustrated with the Senate passing “purely symbolic” bills, and that the Assembly was being “more adult” by amending or putting the brakes on them.
More recently, the two houses struggled to get on the same page in responding to allegations of sexual harassment. After 150 women signed an open letter complaining of pervasive misconduct in the Capitol, the Senate and the Assembly launched separate hearings. Only after criticism from victims did they form a joint panel.
Some Senate-Assembly power struggles have become the stuff of Capitol legend. In the 1980s, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown billed himself as the “Speaker of the Legislature” on a party invitation, prompting an angry rebuke from Senate leader David Roberti.
In the early 2000s, jousting was common between Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate leader Don Perata. Late one night in 2006, as both houses were working to approve bond measures, Perata tired of waiting for the Assembly to send its bills to the upper house. Suddenly he banged his gavel and ended the session, effectively killing the Assembly’s bills. Nunez was so furious he temporarily banned senators from setting foot on the Assembly floor.
“It shocked a lot of people I would do that,” Perata recalled, “but I’m only going to take so much game playing.”
The friction can worsen in a session’s final days and hours, as each house may delay transmitting bills to the other house as a way to leverage deals.
Will Atkins and Rendon avoid such brinkmanship?
“Hopefully the strength of our relationship and our communication will lessen a lot of that,” Rendon said.
“You get this culture passed on to you,” Atkins said. “But I’m not going to perpetuate this ‘us versus them.’ ”