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In an historically significant decision, Assembly Democrats on Monday voted to make Assemblywoman Toni Atkins their next speaker.

Atkins will be the first openly lesbian leader of the Assembly and the first speaker from San Diego. In a nod to the latter distinction, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, gave Atkins a San Diego Padres jersey with her name and the number 1 on the back.

In her acceptance speech, Atkins mostly stuck to thanking her colleagues and a broad promise of re-establishing the effectiveness of California's state government. But she did veer into specifics at one point, emphasizing some issues she has focused on during her political rise.

"If I could add my own personal concern, reducing homelessness and providing affordable housing, including for our state's growing population of veterans," Atkins said.

In followup remarks to reporters, Atkins said California suffers from a dearth of reasonably priced housing.

"California has an issue with provision of affordable housing across the spectrum, whether it's for homeless individuals or working families," she said. "So regardless, we need to be looking at how to fund and afford housing for our citizens."

The exact date when Atkins takes over from current Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, remains in flux, but Atkins said the transition will happen some time this spring.

As lawmakers rose to express support for Atkins' nomination, many paid homage to her humble roots in Virginia coal country. Others lauded her as a consensus-builder and an approachable policy mind, with two San Diego Republicans - Rocky Chavez and Brian Maienschein - noting her open-mindedness.

"We've agreed on issues and we've disagreed on issues, but it's always been a respectful exchange," Chavez said.

It was also a momentous event for the LGBT community, with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, referencing "its significance, its resonance, its poignancy." Atkins' spouse, affordable housing and development consultant Jennifer LeSar, sat beside her during the nominating speeches and vote.

"That is surreal to me," Atkins said in response to a reporter's question about becoming the first openly lesbian speaker.

PHOTO: Speaker John A. Pérez, and Assemblywoman Toni Atkins discuss Atkins becoming the next speaker in the State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif. on January 22, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Jeremy B. White.


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