Toni Atkins in Sacramento. Courtesy of the Senator’s office

By Laura Walcher

There aren’t many challenges on the contemporary legislative list that state Sen. Toni Atkins hasn’t taken on. Discussing issues from climate change to human trafficking in a wide-ranging interview, she explained why these concern her and how they motivate her efforts in Sacramento.

Q. To most of us, the issue of climate change continues to need serious addressing, yet our President and too many dissenters, at the least, ignore it, disdain it — or put up roadblocks. How can we prevail here?

A. We can maintain California’s position of leadership on climate change. Gov. Jerry Brown has made climate change a key policy priority for our state. I worked with the governor and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon on landmark climate-change policy when I was Speaker of the Assembly; now, I continue to play a role on the issue as a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

Regardless of what’s happening in Washington, California is leading. By 2030, we will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels, and we are dramatically increasing production of renewable energy — which is a source of good jobs — and decreasing our use of petroleum, among other goals. We are also officially part of an international battle against climate change.

Q. We need strong and involved Californians for our state, for the nation. But, are our rising housing prices making life here unaffordable for otherwise steadfast present — and new — residents?

A. Unfortunately, yes. Every year, California fails to produce enough new housing to meet demand, and when it comes to housing affordability, we are falling behind the rest of the country. The housing being produced now is disproportionately for the highest-income residents.

As a result, ever more Californians are spending an increasing amount of their income on housing. It is unsustainable.

My Senate Bill 2 — the Building Homes and Jobs Act — proposes to create a permanent source of funding to build affordable housing for thousands of lower-income Californians, including working families, seniors, veterans, farm workers, individuals struggling with mental-health issues and people experiencing homelessness.

SB 2 is an important part of a larger strategy that will necessarily include some regulatory reform to spur production of workforce housing for the middle-class. The state can help, but local governments must play a leading role, and we must overcome community opposition to smart, transit-oriented, infill housing growth.

Q. Where does San Diego stand, and how do we compare to the rest of the state in the availability of affordable housing?

A. New data from the California Housing Partnership Corporation show that San Diego County has an astonishing shortfall of 142,052 affordable housing units for working-class and struggling residents, including teachers, nurses and workers in our retail and hospitality industries.

Our lowest-income renters spend 69 percent of their income on rent, which is unacceptable.

Q. You must bring to this housing issue some personal history: born in Appalachia, in a home with no running water? Trace for us your exodus from there to here!

A. Housing is personal for me. I did grow up in substandard rural housing, as well as pretty terrible urban rental apartments.

My father was a coal miner and a construction worker. My mother, a seamstress in a factory working piecemeal. We didn’t have health insurance.

Toni Atkins with her dogs, Haley and Joey. Courtesy of the Senator

Because of my family’s firsthand experience with poverty I initially sought a career in women’s healthcare and community service. And there is a direct link from my upbringing and the issue of affordable housing.

I moved from southwestern Virginia to San Diego in the mid-1980s to help my sister take care of her son while she served in the Navy. Here, I became director of a group of women’s health clinics and got involved in political activism, which led to working for City Councilmember Christine Kehoe and eventually running to replace her when her term was up in 2000.

In 2002, I spearheaded the effort to declare an affordable housing state of emergency in San Diego and adopt an inclusionary housing policy — so our city has been immersed in this crisis for quite some time.

Q. You must be livid at President Trump for his position on immigration. Yet, aren’t there situations in which it is not OK to live here, undocumented?

A. It is a federal crime to enter this country without permission. And we certainly don’t want to harbor violent criminals.

However, in San Diego we are in a unique position to understand the complexities of living in a boarder community where families live on both sides of the border and our lives are more integrated.

Massive deportation of nonviolent family members who work, pay taxes and contribute to the economy here is not the answer! Many industries and places in California count on these workers, and from a more humane perspective, families should not be pulled apart.

I am a principal co-author of Senate Bill 54, the California Values Act. I believe it will help make our communities safer. In this climate of fear that the President has created, if immigrants are afraid that local police officers will turn them over to federal agents, they are far less likely to cooperate with the police and report crimes, whether they are witnesses or victims.

Our local law-enforcement officials need to continue to focus on community safety and leave immigration enforcement to the federal authorities. Note that nothing in SB 54 shields undocumented individuals from federal law enforcement.

Q. Who of us can not be affected by how the country ultimately legislates healthcare? Is California going to go it alone? Right now, are we “safe” with Obamacare?

A. The Affordable Care Act is not perfect. But it has been far more successful here than in many other places around the country. Through the Covered California healthcare exchange or the expanded Medi-Cal that was made possible by the ACA, our state has extended health insurance to an additional 5 million people, reducing our uninsured rate to a record-low 7.1 percent. In San Diego County, roughly 350,000 people have obtained health coverage as a result of the ACA.

From my perspective, job no. 1 is to protect and preserve the intent of the Affordable Care Act, and in light of congressional action, we may need to go our own way to ensure that Californians continue to get health coverage and care.

I am a joint author of Senate Bill 562, the Healthy California Act. I saw the threat to the ACA and I refused to stand by and watch millions of Californians lose their health insurance.

SB 562 proposes a single-payer healthcare system that will cover every Californian. People should have a right to healthcare just as they have a right to public education or public safety. Healthcare shouldn’t be limited to those who can afford it.

Q. San Diego is noted as one of three California cities in which human trafficking is rampant. What are we doing wrong? Are we making progress in saving young women and punishing the bad guys?

A. You’ve done your research! Sadly, San Diego is on the FBI’s list of the worst 13 U.S. cities for
sex trafficking.

The state Legislature is making a concerted effort to tackle what has become a $32-billion business worldwide, and I personally am attacking the sex-trafficking problem from three different angles.

First, my bill Senate Bill 270 would require all California hotels and motels to train employees on how to identify the signs of human trafficking and how to report that information to law enforcement. Hotels are ground zero for sex trafficking, and I’m grateful to the hotel and lodging industry for joining me in this effort and sponsoring this legislation.

We have seen positive results in hotels and in the airline and ride-sharing industries when people know how to spot the signs and understand how to report them.

Second, my bill Senate Bill 230 would give prosecutors an additional tool during trial to convict accused traffickers. It would allow them, subject to a judge’s discretion, to introduce as evidence a defendant’s past sex-trafficking crimes. Currently, prosecutors can do this with other types of sex crimes, but not trafficking.

Finally, we need to provide better care of child victims of sex trafficking after they are rescued from traffickers. I am currently pursuing funding in the state budget for a pilot project to offer housing and specialized mental-health care for children who’ve been victimized and traumatized by sex-trafficking predators. I am also working on creating a program within foster care for child victims of sex trafficking.

Q. Considering the challenges of enacting any legislation, are there any examples of needed legislation that sailed through, that just make good, agreed-upon sense?

A. Every year, there are thousands of bills introduced in the Legislature, and many of them are uncontroversial and attack problems with common-sense solutions.

The majority of my successful bills last session enjoyed bipartisan support, addressing issues such as domestic violence, the illegal ivory trade, barriers to fresh fish markets, prison recidivism, breast and cervical cancer, healthcare language barriers and environmental injustice.

And, one of my successful bills last year, Assembly Bill 392, made the San Diego River Conservancy a permanent agency. This year, I introduced a follow-up bill, Senate Bill 214, that will strengthen the conservancy’s capacity to protect and enhance the 52-mile river’s watershed.

Thankfully, SB 214 breezed through the Senate and is now in the Assembly. That’s something to feel good about!

Q. Are San Diegans talking to you? What do you need from us?

A. San Diegans are always talking to me — and I love it! We hear from constituents in both our district and Capitol offices, regarding my bills and other high-profile bills. That’s how it’s supposed to work!

From working for then-City Councilmember Christine Kehoe back in 1994, community meetings, engagement and constituent services have been the activities I enjoy the most. Ensuring that residents have access to government is what it’s all about. My staff has the same approach, and it’s a source of great pride for us when a constituent gets a problem resolved.

I also attend community meetings and events throughout my district every week when I’m in
San Diego. It keeps me grounded and really inspires me for my work in Sacramento.

I need people to stay engaged in the political process — both statewide and in San Diego. And, keep up the communication with my office.

If you like a bill that I’m working on and want to help, you can find the bill and track its progress at Contact members of the committees that will hear my bills and ask them to vote yes. Or, call my office and ask how you can be helpful.

Most importantly — vote!

Q. What keeps you focused? Calm? Sane? Optimistic?

A. I love coming home to San Diego from the Capitol every week, to my spouse Jennifer and my dogs, Haley and Joey. They keep me calm and sane! My schedule is busy, and free time is precious, so I make sure I spend it with my family.

Walking the dogs, going to the dog park, hiking our neighborhood canyons — that’s what I look forward to, that’s what helps me maintain perspective.

As someone who grew up not feeling like I had a voice in society, I love my job! I’m humbled to have this opportunity. Still, there is plenty of negativity in governing and policymaking, because people have such strong and divergent opinions, and sometimes it boils over. I like trying to resolve issues. I like bringing people together to figure out solutions.

At the end of the day, I know that I and my colleagues — and all the passionate advocates and interested parties in the public with whom we collaborate — are doing important work every day that seeks to improve people’s lives, solves problems and expands opportunities. That’s what keeps me positive and optimistic.

Laura Walcher is principal PR consultant to J.Walcher Communications, a San Diego-based public relations and marketing firm.