SACRAMENTO — Two Southern Californians are poised to lead the state Legislature for the first time in four decades, after lawmakers put aside the geographic rivalries that typically cleave the powerful posts between north and south.
San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins was selected as the next speaker of the Assembly by unanimous vote in her caucus Wednesday, about a week after state Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles was anointed heir to the top Senate job.
Both are expected to take over after formal floor votes in their respective houses.
Traditionally, each house has been led by a lawmaker from a different region. The current Assembly speaker, John A. Pérez, is from Los Angeles; his counterpart in the Senate, Darrell Steinberg, hails from Sacramento. Both are Democrats.
The last time one end of the state produced leaders at the helms of both houses was 1995, when Democrat Bill Lockyer of San Leandro was Senate President Pro Tem and Willie Brown of San Francisco was Assembly speaker, according to Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate.
It has been even longer since two Southern Californians were in charge: In 1974, Democrat James R. Mills of Coronado led the Senate and Democrat Robert Moretti of Los Angeles presided over the Assembly, Schmidt said.
In their pursuit of the top posts, both Atkins and De Leon assured their colleagues that they would be sensitive to the distinct regional needs of the state.
Atkins said Wednesday that she and her fellow legislators "are Californians first."
"There are urban-rural issues, there are coastal-inland, north-south. As a caucus, we work on all of those issues together," Atkins said.
California's longstanding north-south rivalry bubbled to the surface as the choices for the leadership jobs were becoming clear. A Bay Area business group warned that it was not in the state's interest for one region to have too much sway. Later, a Los Angeles group countered that Southern California has most of the state's population.
In the end, though, lawmakers said they were able to put aside their geographic ties. The contests were decided by "who could get the votes," said Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena).
Atkins, 51, the daughter of a Virginia coal miner and a seamstress, was first elected to the Legislature in 2010 and has been majority leader in the Assembly since 2012.
She has offered legislation on low-income housing and been a vocal supporter of abortion rights. Last year, the governor signed her bill allowing non-physicians such as nurse-practitioners to perform abortions.
Before arriving in Sacramento, she had been a member of San Diego's City Council for eight years. She wrote the city's "living wage" ordinance, which raised the wages of workers on city contracts, and she advocated for construction of low-income housing.
Atkins worked in community health clinics in the city after moving there at age 23 to be near a sister in the Navy. She had graduated from Emory and Henry College in Emory, Va., with a degree in political science.
Married to real estate and economic development consultant Jennifer LeSar, Atkins will be the first lesbian to serve as speaker, although not the Assembly's first openly gay leader. Pérez took that distinction when he became speaker in 2010.
A floor vote by the full Assembly to officially designate Atkins as speaker is slated for early spring.
De Leon, an eight-year veteran of the Legislature, was originally from San Diego. There, his mother, who at one time was in the country illegally, worked as a housekeeper, traveling daily from their home in the poor Logan Heights neighborhood to clean houses in La Jolla and other wealthy enclaves.
As a lawmaker, he has pursued legislation to help immigrants. He was instrumental in pushing through a bill last year providing wide access to driver's licenses for those in the country illegally.
He made national headlines in 2012 with a bill that will set up a state-managed retirement account for low- and moderate-income workers who don't have pensions.
De Leon, 47, attended UC Santa Barbara, but he left after spending too much time on academic probation and finished his bachelor's degree in political studies at Pitzer College. He worked for the California Teachers Assn. before winning election to the Assembly in 2006.
He moved to the Senate in 2010. A single father of a 19-year-old daughter, De Leon chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Senate is expected to vote formally on the leadership post in the summer, after the next budget is approved.
"I am humbled by the support of my colleagues from all over California and I intend to focus on their interests and concerns," De Leon said in a statement Wednesday. "I'm confident and look forward to continue California's leadership in solving our most vexing problems."
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.
n San Diego contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun