SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The leader of the California Senate said Friday he will run for governor in 2026, entering a campaign quickly filling up with candidates in a state that is far from voters’ minds but often requires fundraising to compete in some seats. It is one of the most expensive media markets in the country.
Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, made history as the third person and the first woman to hold both of the state legislature’s highest offices – speaker of the Assembly and president pro tempore of the Senate.
Atkins is still in the latter role, but plans to resign early next month he is entering the final year of his term and cannot seek re-election due to term limits.
California, despite its progressive reputation, has never had a female or openly LGBTQ governor. Atkins, who is a lesbian, can be both. But he will have to compete against a strong field of Democrats, including the Public Instruction Chair Tony Thurmondformer superintendent Betty Yee and Lt. Eleni Kounalakis. Attorney General Rob Bonta is also considering running to replace incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom, who failed to seek a third term.
Kounalakis, Thurmond, Yee and Bonta have the advantage of showing up and winning statewide elections, meaning voters will know them. Atkins was elected only by voters in San Diego.
But he knows the inner workings of the Capitol and policymaking well. He has negotiated multibillion-dollar budgets and major legislation with two governors. And he has compelling personal story – Grew up in a house with no running water in rural Virginia before heading west and becoming one of the state’s most powerful elected officials.
“I certainly don’t fit the mold of past governors or even some of the candidates who will be running in this race,” Atkins said. “I’m going to build on my story because I think Californians are going to want someone who’s more like them.”
Atkins came to California in 1985 to take care of her sister’s younger son. She later worked at a women’s health clinic that performed abortions before being elected to the San Diego City Council. He briefly served as mayor before being elected to the state Assembly in 2010 and the state Senate in 2016.
In the Legislature, he worked with former governors Jerry Brown and Newsom to craft a series of budgets marked by multibillion-dollar surpluses. That ended with the state running a billion-dollar deficit last year.
Newsom has strongly rejected large-scale tax increases to balance the budget — something Atkins has said he would try to stay away from if elected governor.
“We want to protect what we have done. It took a lot of work,” Atkins said. “I wouldn’t be inclined to raise taxes right now. I don’t think there’s a call yet.”
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