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New California Assembly speaker to test Democratic party moderates

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Toni Atkins, who made history this week as California's first openly lesbian Assembly Speaker, may change the tone of state Democratic politics as her progressive views set her on a possible collision course with moderate Governor Jerry Brown.

The San Diego Democrat is expected to nudge the assembly toward the left, potentially sparking friction with party centrists like Brown, whose fiscally cautious and politically moderate stance helped stabilize state finances and built large majorities in the legislature.

"Of course, she's going to stand up to Brown when it's important to her," said University of Southern California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "On the other hand, the governor will stand firm until he feels he can't any more. And a compromise will be reached somewhere in the middle."

Atkins, 51, will lead the assembly in the most populous U.S. state at a time of unprecedented Democratic dominance, won in part because Democrats moved toward the middle on fiscal and some social policy, winning support of moderate voters as the Republican Party moved farther right.

Hints of a potential clash came quickly. Moments after her swearing-in on Monday, Atkins detailed a list of expensive legislative priorities such as helping veterans and the homeless, affordable housing and education.

"There are some worries that if she gets too far to the left it may cause some problems for Democrats in swing districts," Jeffe said.

The third woman to serve as assembly speaker, Atkins is seen as someone with business-friendly credentials but a liberal agenda on social issues, carrying bills in recent months on abortion, greenhouse gas emissions and transgender rights.

She wants more spending on programs to help veterans and the poor, which puts her in line with the more progressive state senate but could lead to conflict with Brown and moderate assembly Democrats, many elected with Republican support.

SOCIAL SERVICES PUSH

Under Atkins' predecessor and pressure from Brown, Democrats resisted using their majority to push through such liberal touchstones as allowing higher property taxes.

Some liberal measures were enacted, including letting nurses perform some abortions, raising the minimum wage and protections for undocumented immigrants. But others failed, including one Atkins supported authorizing alcohol regulators to oversee the medical marijuana industry.

"She tries to listen to all perspectives," said Brian Jones, a Republican who served with Atkins on a transportation board before both joined the assembly. "But at the end of the day, she's going to try to get done what's important to her."

As the daughter of a lead miner and a seamstress, raised in a rural Virginia home without running water, the issues close to her heart are clear: affordable housing and access to healthcare.

"You just need to take a look at her personal story, and what she has done," said Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat who will serve on her leadership team. "Toni and her family grew up poor, in substandard housing."

Atkins praised Brown's desire for a rainy-day fund enshrined in the state constitution, but signaled she would push to raise spending on social services.

"As we finalize the budget over the next few weeks, we will also look to expand opportunity by combating child poverty, improving access to higher education, increasing funding for transportation projects, and taking strides to expand affordable housing," Atkins said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Nick Zieminski)

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