For a fleeting moment today, California will have its first openly gay governor


California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D). (Screenshot of Atkins speaking at “She Shares” forum)

Updated at 3:25 p.m.

California saw its first-ever openly gay governor on Wednesday, albeit briefly.

The state this week is cycling through four Democratic governors as official after official leaves for scheduled travel. Gov. Jerry Brown is on a trade mission in Mexico. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom filled in briefly, but is on the East Coast. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg took the reins after Newsom left, but is now out of state himself. For the roughly eight or nine hours before Brown returns on Wednesday night, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a lesbian, will be acting governor.

“I recognize that my short time as acting governor will probably prove to be uneventful (and I hope it will be uneventful!). But I’m also thinking today about how a young girl who grew up in poverty in Virginia ends up as Speaker and therefore gets the opportunity to be acting governor,” she said in a written statement to The Post. “What that says about our opportunities as Americans and our democracy are profound. And I will continue to spend my time as a legislator in this great state ensuring that all California kids have access to that American Dream — the California Dream — by supporting access to health care, affordable housing and educational opportunities. I wish my parents could see this. Now I know that may sound hokey to many.  But honestly, this is what is going through my mind.  I feel so grateful.  If Governor Brown wants a few more days away I’m here for him!”

Atkins is the state’s first openly gay governor and the nation’s second, gay rights advocates say. The first was New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, whose August 2004 coming out was tied to his resignation. “My truth is that I am a gay American,” he revealed at the time, adding that he had cheated on his wife with a man and therefore intended to resign that November.

Atkins, too, is a gay American—one that has registered other firsts in her political life. She is the first openly lesbian leader of either California chamber, succeeding the first openly gay Assembly speaker, John Pérez, a Democrat from Los Angeles. Atkins was also the first lesbian mayor of San Diego when she briefly held office in 2005 after a predecessor resigned. In 2003, she became the city’s first openly lesbian deputy mayor, too.

She grew up poor in rural Virginia and said last month at a women’s leadership conference that issues related to poverty, such as education, health care and housing, are key concerns. In her remarks at the conference, Atkins also discussed her thoughts on how being openly lesbian can help advance the gay rights movement. “It was Harvey Milk who said the most profound thing you can do to move equality forward is come out and to be who you are,” she said.

While her brief stint as governor marks one milestone for gay Americans, another has yet to be reached: No state has yet elected an openly gay governor. But Maine’s Mike Michaud (D) could change that if unseats Republican Gov. Paul LePage this fall.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.

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Niraj Chokshi · July 29, 2014