Toni Atkins, right, was inaugurated as speaker of the state Assembly Monday. Her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, is beside her. (Photo courtesy of Atkins’ office)

A new era under the state Capitol dome began Monday with the inauguration of Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). But, in truth, it’s more the beginning of the end for a different era … a major one in California politics.

The soon-to-end era began almost exactly 19 years ago after the elevation of only the third woman to lead the Legislature’s lower house — coincidentally, with the selection of the first woman to be speaker, Doris Allen.

On June 5, 1995, Allen became the first Republican speaker in almost a quarter century and the successor to the legendary speaker, Willie Brown. Voters approved Proposition 140 in 1990 — a system of term limits that capped service in the Assembly to six years and service in the state Senate to eight years. It was a political campaign crafted by Prop 140’s proponents around the idea of booting Willie Brown from power.

But the wily San Francisco Democrat had one more ace up his sleeve: hand pick a Republican successor, Doris Allen, a stand-in who would allow him to retain his private power even with a new public face on Assembly leadership.

And so Allen, an Orange County Republican assemblywoman, left her GOP colleagues in the dark to cut a secret deal with Brown — who was scrambling to keep some of his own power and that of his fellow Democrats after the 1994 GOP electoral tsunami.

“By stepping aside as speaker and letting Allen take over,” wrote journalist James Richardson in a seminal biography of Willie Brown, “he prevented the Republican caucus from naming its own speaker and writing its own rules. In effect, Willie Brown was still controlling the shots.”

Allen’s speakership lasted all of 105 days, with Republicans wresting control from Brown and Democrats through much of the years 1995 and 1996.

But back to 2014: The ascension of Doris Allen was the beginning of the era of short-time Assembly speakers, one that now ends with Toni Atkins. The San Diego Democrat was first elected to the Assembly in 2010 and must leave office no later than the fall of 2016.

How much turnover has there been in the last two decades? Consider this: Atkins is the eleventh speaker since that fateful June day in 1995. By contrast, in the previous 34 years, only five assemblymembers had held the title of speaker.

And so when Speaker Atkins was handed the gavel on Monday afternoon, you could almost hear the clock starting to tick. She’ll have just about two years to make her mark on issues she laid out in Monday’s inaugural speech, from veterans aid to affordable housing.

Atkins knows she must prioritize.

“I don’t think I can go all over the place,” Atkins said at a news conference after the swearing-in ceremony.

And Atkins may have very little time before the jockeying begins for who will come next. And here’s where she symbolizes a major political shift.

The freshman class of assemblymembers elected in 2012, the largest class in more than a generation, is also the first to serve under the relaxed term limits approved by voters that June. Proposition 28 allows new legislators, if re-elected by their constituents, to serve up to 12 years in a single house of the Legislature. That’s double the length of service anyone has had in the Assembly for more than a decade.

As such, the next speaker of the Assembly will almost undoubtedly be able to serve for eight years or longer. That would be longer than the legendary Jesse Unruh held the post in the ’60s, and second only in state history to Willie Brown.

Atkins knows that will mean major changes in governing, changes already well underway as the 2012 class seems to be introducing fewer bills, searches for some renewed sense of bipartisanship, and is less enamored with running for vacant seats in other places (the state Senate, mainly) than their predecessors.

“There will be, I think, some culture shifts,” the speaker said at Monday’s news conference.

And as she was feted by colleagues with glowing floor speeches during her swearing-in ceremony, it was hard to not notice that the first person who spoke was a freshman — Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez, (D-Los Angeles), who already has had his name bandied about as — one day — possibly taking a shot at lining up the votes to become speaker.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly identified another legislator some have seen as leadership material, Assemblymember Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), as a freshman.  Williams was first elected in 2010.

  • Mark Fail

    Das Williams not a freshman…elected 2010


John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED's longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento's ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two "Best Of" lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014's list of America's most influential statehouse reporters.

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