Toni Atkins to lead California Senate, making her its first female at the helm – Orange County Register

By JONATHAN J. COOPER and KATHLEEN RONAYNE

SACRAMENTO — San Diego Sen. Toni Atkins was tapped Thursday by fellow state Senate Democrats to replace Kevin de Leon and become the chamber’s first female leader amid scrutiny over the Legislature’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

De Leon, who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, announced Atkins as his successor but did not say when it will happen next year. Atkins will need to be elected by senators but that’s perfunctory since Democrats have 27 of 40 seats.

Term-limited legislative leaders often transfer power to their successor during their last year in office.

“For nearly four years, it’s been a profound honor to lead a unified, progressive and collaborative California state Senate,” de Leon said in his statement.

Atkins said she would work to make California “a place of opportunity for everyone.”

Putting a woman in charge could boost Democrats’ credibility in handling a burgeoning sexual misconduct scandal in the Capitol, said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. The Legislature, though, faces accusations of a pervasive culture of harassment dating back years, including when Atkins led the Assembly.

“Whether she was policing this properly in her previous leadership role or not, she will absolutely have the pressure to do so this time around,” Nalder said.

De Leon, meanwhile, could avoid some scrutiny in how the Senate handles the controversy going forward if he is no longer in charge. As the Senate battled the claims that harassment complaints are swept under the rug, it emerged that de Leon’s one-time roommate, Sen. Tony Mendoza, was the target of several complaints. Any perception of wrongdoing by de Leon could damage his credibility in the race against Feinstein, one of the most prominent women in California and U.S. politics.

“As is often the case, women get called in to do the clean up,” Nalder said. “Toni Atkins will have to be the face of that. It’s less likely (de Leon) will be in news stories about what the Legislature is doing in regards to sexual harassment and that benefits him.”

If Atkins takes over in the spring, de Leon would be freed from the need to run the state Senate, giving him more time to travel outside Sacramento and make appearances around the state on behalf of his U.S. Senate campaign, said Mark Keppler, director of The Maddy Institute at…

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