(Editor’s Note: Rep. Toni Atkins is the Assembly Majority Leader. She was elected to the Assembly in 2010 after serving for eight years in the San Diego City Council. Both the questions and answers have been paraphrased for clarity and brevity.)
Where were you raised?
I grew up in southwest Virginia where I attended both high school and college. My mom was a seamstress and my father was a coal miner. We grew up in a rural area close to agriculture. We always had a garden where we grew a lot of our food.
I moved to San Diego when I was 23 to be with my sister who was in the Navy and stationed in San Diego. I always wanted to come to California and once I got here I loved San Diego and have stayed here ever since.
How did you get involved in politics?
I originally ran three community clinics when I first came to California and I did that for several years. I majored in political science in college but I never saw myself as a politician but rather I thought I’d be a community organizer and activist.
Early on I met a woman running for City Council — Christine Kehoe — and I worked for her election. Eventually she asked me to come work for her when she got elected thinking I might stay there for a year. When she left the City Council to run for the Assembly, I ran for her seat and was elected.
Christine actually urged me to run for her Assembly seat when she ran for the Senate but I wasn’t ready to do that. I wanted to the stay in City Council. But she planted the seed.
How did growing up in a rural southern community shape your political thinking?
I did grow up in a blue-collar working family in a world that is pretty conservative. I am a Democrat but I was exposed to a lot of different points of view and I think it has given me a broader tolerance of views that I just don’t agree with.
But growing up in the rural South definitely shaped my opinions on many issues that I am passionate about. I grew up in substandard housing and in an area where there was not a lot of good affordable housing and that has given me a passion for the affordable housing issue. I am trying to learn as much as I can about farmworker housing and I am also deeply involved in the huge foreclosure crisis.
I also grew up with no health care insurance which has made me passionate about that issue. I support the Affordable Care Act. I think most people agree that we should be able to offer health care to everyone in this country. How do you get there is the issue. In light of the most recent announcement from the Obama Administration (about delaying implementation of some elements), it is obvious that this is a difficult situation. But here in California we are trying to lead the way. I think once we achieve it, we will be a better society for it. I do believe in it.
Another factor that has shaped my opinions is that I grew up in a military family. I am one of the few people in my entire family that did not serve in the military. My father served in World War II. My sister was in the Navy and I have many other relatives that served. Just about everyone. I have great respect for the military and the people who serve. It was a big part of my upbringing.
Though you are in the Assembly Leadership, you appear to have an independent streak and have not always gone along. Is that a fair assessment?
My first priority is to get things done. I came from the City Council and local politics which was largely non-partisan. I do listen to all of my constituents, have my own opinions and occasionally I can’t go there (with the leadership). But I am a Democrat and I believe in loyalty. All of us in the Legislature — both Democrats and Republicans — have a responsibility to work with those on both sides of the aisle and I have done that. But sometimes it does appear that we are not being helped by the other side.
We do have a responsibility as a Democratic majority to lead the Legislature and help solve some of the problems we have. When Gov. Brown came into office, he had the sole goal of righting the ship. We worked hard to solve our budget deficit and we have succeeded. The state is on the right path toward increased job creation and solving some of the other issues we have such as having the discussion about water that we need to have.
What is your view of agriculture in the state of California? Often times the industry believes it is not understood by urban legislators. Do you think that is a fair criticism?
I grew up near agriculture so I do have some understanding of it. And I also have some agriculture in my district. However, I did not know how important agriculture was to our state until I came into the Assembly and began to get educated. One person I have to credit is Fiona Ma (San Francisco assemblywoman from 2006-2012). Someone from the agricultural industry educated her and she reached out to me and helped educate me. It is an educational process and urban legislators do need to be educated.
On a personal note, when I discovered that California had a large cotton crop, I really wanted to see how cotton was grown and picked in this state. When I was growing up I used to pick cotton and so I was really interested to see how it was done here. I got to see cotton farming in California and I had never seen such incredible machines.
What are your future political plans?
I am not sure what is next for me. I do like being in leadership and I really like to do what I do.
Our members grow some of the best fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world, are you a consumer of our products and do you have a favorite?
I do consume many of your products. I do not believe there is a fruit or nut that I don’t like. I have been introduced to many agricultural products while in Sacramento and have been the recipient of many products grown in the state. I have to say I am very appreciative. As a politician I don’t think I should pick a favorite. I love them all…but I really like California limes.
Join Western Growers
Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live.