Under pressure to reform its policies dealing with sexual harassment claims, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced today that a woman will replace him next year when he is termed out of office.
In a statement, de León said San Diego Democrat Toni G. Atkins was the consensus choice of the caucus to succeed him. A formal vote will be held in January.
"Toni is a leader of great experience, achievement and integrity, and I have every confidence that she will lead America's most accomplished legislative chamber to even greater heights," de León said.
Atkins is a first-term senator, but she served six years in the Assembly, including two as speaker. In the past year Atkins sponsored legislation, SB 179, to create a third nonbinary gender option on state documents. Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill was a high priority of the LGBT community, of which Atkins is a member.
She also authored SB 2, which created a new fee on real estate transactions to raise money for affordable housing construction.
Under de León's leadership, the Senate has passed significant legislation on gun control, climate change and housing. He also sponsored SB 54, which created a "sanctuary state" with limits on local law enforcement's ability to communicate with federal immigration agents.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) cheered the news that Atkins would be the next pro tem.
“Toni Atkins is a fantastic leader for our state," Wiener said. "She has this outward calming presence, but underneath she’s tough as nails. She is also a trailblazer for the LGBT community, and I consider her a mentor. "
In a statement released by her office Atkins said, "I am humbled by the trust my colleagues have placed in me, and I intend to earn that trust every day by working tirelessly and inclusively to keep California a place of opportunity for everyone."
Atkins will take over a legislative body that has been criticized by some women who have spoken out about pervasive sexual harassment at the Capitol.
Sacramento lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who this week named state Assemblyman Matt Dababneh (D-Woodland Hills) as the person who pushed her into a restroom and started masturbating, said she hoped Atkins would do more to reform the Senate's policies and procedures in a way that protects whistleblowers.
“This is a collective problem, not the responsibility of any one person," Lopez said. "But I am critical of individual leaders who do not commit to openness and transparency. It makes me wonder what is there to hide?”
In response, a spokesman for de León called that characterization "unfair." Press secretary Jonathan Underland said "from the moment the Senate received a letter from We Said Enough, it has been working to develop a solutions-oriented, victim-focused and trauma-informed approach to handling complaints of and investigations into inappropriate behavior, sexual and otherwise.”
Wiener defended de León, thanking him "for his steady hand leading this great institution.” In responding to charges de León hasn't done enough to change the hostile culture toward women, Wiener said "we have been in constant communication within the Senate about sexual harassment, adding that "Kevin [de León] has been very active within the Democratic caucus. He takes it very seriously."
In response to KQED's inquiries, de Leon's office sent a timeline outlining the steps the president pro tem has taken since the criticisms arose, including hiring two independent firms to investigate the allegations and announcing that the Senate Rules Committee would no longer handle complaints of sexual harassment.
State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), who until recently shared a Sacramento apartment with de León, is under investigation for unwanted sexual advances. De León has not been accused of any misbehavior, but critics, including lobbyist Pamela Lopez, say he still hasn't responded strongly enough.
Praising the Assembly for holding a public hearing recently to expose the extent of the problem, Lopez said, “We still have not seen any of that from the Senate in terms of a transparent discussion about assault or sexual harassment. All we have seen is a few cryptic press releases saying we’re going to bring in some investigator. I think that will just intimidate women further. That’s all we’ve gotten. Perhaps [de León] is trying to escape some of this.”
De León, who became the first Latino Senate leader in California in over a century, is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her re-election bid next year. A recent poll shows de León has his work cut out for him, as almost half of Californians say they have not heard of him.
Note: This story originally suggested that lobbyist Pamela Lopez was a leader in the "We Said Enough" movement. While she has been outspoken about sexual harassment in Sacramento, she is not a representative of the organization.