There's been a cultural sea-change in Sacramento

Twenty years ago, same-sex couples wouldn't have shown affection in the Legislature as Speaker Toni Atkins and her spouse have.

Jennifer LeSar, Toni Atkins

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, right, walks with her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, in the state Assembly. (Associated Press / June 29, 2014)

Reporting from Sacramento

People often ask me what are the biggest changes I've seen at the state Capitol since I began covering it half a century ago. Until recently, there wasn't a good answer. Now there is.

Back in the so-called good old days — or even 20 years ago — you never would have seen two lesbians walking hand-in-hand down the Assembly center aisle, one en route to being sworn in as speaker.

And you definitely would not have seen this same-sex married couple kissing at the podium in front of news cameras.

Also, no one would have imagined that the young Latino organizer of a downtown Los Angeles march essentially defending illegal immigration — drawing 80,000, many of them waving Mexican flags — would 20 years later be elected leader of the state Senate.

The basic political rhythm of California's Capitol hasn't changed a lot in 50 years. People raise money, get elected, build coalitions, craft deals, pass legislation, raise more money and get reelected.

The political parties may be more polarized today, but not that much more, frankly. Term limits have weakened the Legislature and shifted more power to the governor and special interests. Campaign money is more invasive and perhaps more corrupting. But it's not all that clear.

What's undeniable is this: There has been a dramatic cultural and demographic shift in the Capitol that reflects California's citizenry. And it includes acceptance of gays and lesbians.

That struck me recently while watching Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) walking to the rostrum to take the speaker's oath, holding hands with her spouse, development consultant Jennifer LeSar. And after the swearing in, they kissed.

Atkins is the first lesbian to become speaker, considered the second most powerful post in state government. Her predecessor, Assemblyman John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), was the first openly gay speaker.

It wasn't that long ago when politicians felt compelled to hide their homosexuality, fearing voter rejection. Some of us even remember when gay public officials were thought to be vulnerable to blackmail and considered security risks. At minimum, they were regarded as political liabilities.

In 1967, new Gov. Ronald Reagan's chief of staff was forced to resign when colleagues learned he was gay and mounted a coup. Other suspected gay aides also subsequently departed in what was called a scandal.

Fast forward 40 years to a more enlightened era: Another Hollywood export, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hired lesbian Susan Kennedy as his chief of staff. The only concern was that she was a Democrat in a Republican administration.

As I watched Atkins in the Assembly, the echo of past nasty floor debates over gay rights rang in my ears.

In 1991, an assemblyman from the Sierra foothills rose and described in graphic, unprintable detail his vision of homosexual acts. Even fellow Republicans tried to shut him up.

In 1997, a Republican lawmaker and lifelong cattle rancher from San Benito County rambled on about gay heifers. In 1999, another Republican compared homosexuality with bestiality.

Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat and currently running for an L.A. County supervisorial seat, was the first openly homosexual California legislator. She was elected in 1994. Carole Migden, a San Francisco Democrat, followed two years later.

Today, there are eight openly gay and lesbian lawmakers.

"When Migden was elected," Kuehl recalls, "she used to joke that if we wanted the Assembly floor to fall silent, all we had to do was hug each other. It was shocking to people when gays touched.

"I could not have imagined [the Atkins inaugural] 20 years ago."

Atkins told me that even today, the hand-holding and kissing "probably shocked a lot of people."

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