You volunteered for Bobby Kennedy when you were 14. Why?
What totally captured me, before I was 14, was the civil rights movement. My father was from the South and turned me into a news junkie at a very early age. I would sit and watch TV with him. It seemed like the whole world was changing. I couldn't wait to grow up.
The moment I feel that way, I quit.
How do men and women deal with power differently?
I think that women are much more collaborative; men are much more competitive. And here's the funny thing: I think men are more emotional. I don't know where we got the "hysterical" rap.
How does this manifest itself?
In terms of competition, a lot of the negotiation between members -- the conflicts. A lot of it is over territory. The emotion is typically anger, and anger displayed in an explosive manner.
As an African American woman, are you able to do things a white man would not be able to?
No, I think it's a lot easier for white men, absolutely. I feel that gender is much more of a dynamic [in the Legislature] than race is. It's just overwhelmingly male -- in every sector of life in Sacramento. It doesn't bother me because I've grown up with that. But sometimes it's a little taxing. At press conferences, I go out of my way and call on the women [reporters] because if I don't, they will not be heard. I just think that the guys are overpowering. It's not overt; it's not like they make overtly sexist comments. It's just people going about life. If you're the overwhelming majority, you function that way.
What do you make of the anger in the gay community about African Americans and Proposition 8 -- and vice versa? When gays talk about marriage as civil rights, some African Americans say, "Whoa, don't go there."
Trying to say, "What you went through is the same thing we're going through" -- that's what African Americans have a hard time with. Race -- you can't really mistake who I am. I most certainly didn't support Proposition 8. Every time marriage equality has come up, I've voted for it. I've contributed financially. [But] if you look at people's struggles, you have to respect them for their uniqueness. You can't say they're all the same. And I also think, within the general generic gay community, they need to lift up the black gay community. I know that black gays and lesbians [have] felt very disrespected.
You lost your only child, your daughter, Emelia, and her husband, Michael Wright, in a car crash in October 2008. You still wear her wedding ring and her locket. How has losing her changed you?
My daughter was the center of my life, and it has changed me forever. The only way I can describe it is if you use an analogy of physical pain. It's like having a deep wound that never heals. Over time, you learn how to manage the pain [but] it doesn't go away. My life is intense and consumed, but I go home at night, and I wake up in the morning, [and] she is on my mind constantly. The good news is that I'm very close to all of her closest friends. I was like the play-mom. When [Emelia] was in college, she'd come home and say, "Well, you don't mind if so-and-so stays with us for three months?" There were a couple of summers when I was running a sorority.
Do you ever smoke in the tent with the governor? Does he give you a ride home in his jet?
I don't smoke. I feel I have a fine relationship with the governor. There's a lot of things we agree about and certainly a lot of things we disagree about. You hear about the partisan divide a lot, and it's true, it's there, but most of it is not really personal. Even my most conservative Republican colleagues -- we're not angry at each other, we just realize we come from different planets! And yes, he's given me a ride home in his plane.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.