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Mission accomplished in San Diego, Toni Atkins sets her sights on Sacramento

SAN DIEGO – Toni Atkins is most likely a shoo-in to be elected to the California Assembly, but don’t tell her that.

“Nobody has the luxury of complacency,” Atkins said in an extensive interview with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Atkins hopes to represent Assembly District 76, which is considered safe for Democrats. Ralph Denney, her Republican opponent in November, is a long shot to pull off an upset. Daniel H. Baehr is the Libertarian Party candidate in the race, and little is known about him other than that he lists his occupation as school bus driver.

“I don’t believe in taking anything for granted,” said Atkins, who served two terms on the San Diego City Council, including a stint as Deputy Mayor while the city was in political crisis. “I get nervous when people say you have nothing to worry about.”

Atkins and her wife, Jennifer LeSar, live in South Park with their standard poodle, Haley. Denney, who is also openly gay, is a single father of two who lives in the North Park/Hillcrest area.

November’s District 76 race has already made political history, matching a lesbian Democrat against a gay Republican.

Atkins doesn’t believe that sexual orientation matters much to the voters she is meeting during her walks throughout District 76.

“Mostly no,” she said. “The majority of citizens want to know you can do the job. Of course there are the extremes.”

The public reaction to her 2008 marriage to LeSar was “very positive,” Atkins said. The couple are among the protected class of 18,000 gays and lesbians who wed before Proposition 8 took away same-sex marriage.

Getting out her message

Atkins said voters she is meeting with during what she calls “friend-raisers, not fund-raisers” are less worried about social issues and more acutely wary of the high unemployment and terrible economy. Californians, she said, are particularly hard-hit by a string of state cash-flow problems and state budget crises.

“My message is simple,” she said. “I’m a hard worker. I’m a public servant, as opposed to a politician. I’m a public servant with the experience in city government to help me be prepared to serve in Sacramento.”

Atkins outlined her key issues:

Jobs – “This is a critical piece of my platform.”
Education – “Kindergarten through college/university.”
Environment – “Clean water, clean beaches, clean air.”
Health care – “Everybody is concerned about this.”

“I am a policy person, not a politician,” Atkins said. “I’ve worked with folks on both sides of the isle.”

Tackling the state budget problems will take years, she said, pointing to the reckless spending in the immediate past when California had a booming economy. She said legislators failed to set aside “rainy day” money for the future when things were good during the dot.com boom.

“We acted as if we had money to burn,” Atkins said of the state Assembly and Senate.

Now, California can barely pay its bills, state services are being drastically cut back or eliminated, and the state budget is shrinking by billions of dollars and the state deficit is growing by billions of dollars.

“We need more than to tighten our belts,” said Atkins, who forecasts that it will take a decade to right the ship.

“This is a long-term problem,” she said. “It won’t be solved overnight.”

Feeling everybody’s pain

What bothers Atkins the most is hearing stories about how people are suffering due to the state budget cuts and the sour economy.

“The reduction in services is affecting our most vulnerable citizens,” she said. “The disabled. The seniors. People with HIV or AIDS. Our students.”

Atkins vows, if elected, to tackle the problems that most concern her constituents.

“We need to be working toward efficiencies … looking for waste in government,” she said. “We need to hold the line for people who really need the services.”

Atkins sees a tough decade ahead economically, and that will challenge the Assembly and the Senate to come up with solutions.

The November election could be a crucial one. While Californians are expected to elect a Democrat-controlled Assembly and Senate, all bets are off on the governor’s race as Republican candidate Meg Whitman, a billionaire, is spending wads of money to persuade voters to put her in the Governor’s Mansion. Former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, is her chief opponent.

Atkins is wary of having a Republican as governor because the governor sets the budget from which the legislature works. The conflict between outgoing Gov. Arnold Swarzenneger and the Democrat-controlled legislature was largely non-stop since he assumed office on Nov. 17, 2003.

“You wonder if both sides are going to agree on anything,” Atkins said. “The Republican side says, just cut services. The Democrat side says, I can’t take money from seniors and kids. … And I think this is essentially the difference between me and my opponent.”

Prepared for higher office

Atkins says her two terms on San Diego City Council have prepared her for Sacramento, and points out that her political experience distinguishes herself from her opponent.

“Aside from the partisan politics, it is about experience,” she said. “Serving the public is so different from running a business.”

She notes that she served during major political crises while on San Diego City Council. The city experienced the economic crisis before the rest of the state as the real estate bubble burst here first. Then there was the city pension crisis. The resignation of the mayor and two councilmembers.

Atkins even served as Deputy Mayor from July 18 to Dec. 5, 2005, at the height of the political crises after the mayor had resigned.

“Serving as acting mayor was a moment I was so proud of,” said Atkins, who became the first lesbian to hold that job in San Diego.

“The city was so chaotic at that time … We had lost two City Councilmembers and the mayor had resigned … We were undergoing the Securities Exchange Commission investigation … The City Attorney at the time was so contentious … We had budget problems, and we were transforming from a city manager form of government to a strong mayor form of government.”

Atkins said the city during that time also relocated over 600 Hurricane Katrina victims to San Diego and had to fight off an attempt by the military to close one or more of the local bases that are vital to the region’s economy.

“It was chaotic,” she said. “We had no elected mayor. I had to step up. And I did. It was extremely hard work, it was very intense, but at the same time it was a wonderful experience to know that you can rise to the occasion.

“Having that opportunity gives me more experience to work for my constituents at the state level,” Atkins said.

Falling in love with San Diego

Atkins grew up in rural Wythe County, Virginia – which explains her charming Southern accent. She graduated from Emory & Henry College with a degree in political science and with a focus on community organizing.

She moved to San Diego in 1985, not knowing a soul other than her sister, Tenia, who was pregnant and needed her help.

She fell in love with the city – and never left.

Within 15 years, Atkins was elected to the City Council. It was an astonishing feat for an outsider.

She credits her success of building a constituency by throwing herself into community activities. She became director of clinical services at Womancare Health Center, where she met numerous women seeking health care.

She joined LGBT groups and advocated for equal rights. She supported environmental causes and pushed for affordable housing. She fought for a living wage in San Diego.

She also became council representative and policy analyst to City Councilmember Christine Kehoe, and when Kehoe was elected to the state Senate, Atkins won Kehoe’s seat on Nov. 7, 2000. Atkins was re-elected in March 2004 without needing a November runoff in the nonpartisan race.

Now she turns her attention to District 76 and is focusing a lot of attention on the neighborhoods of Clairemont and Point Loma, which are not part of her old City Council district.

“I want to get to know the people who live there and learn what their concerns are,” Atkins said.

And what does Atkins believe is the key to her success?

“It’s been opportunity, good luck and hard work,” Atkins said. “And being in the right place at the right time.”

Sen. Christine Kehoe, Equality California executive director Geoff Kors and Toni Atkins (right).

Sen. Christine Kehoe, Equality California executive director Geoff Kors and Toni Atkins (right).

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