State Senate leader Toni Atkins joins 2026 race for California governor

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State Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) announced a 2026 run for California governor Friday morning, making the legislative leader the latest entrant in an increasingly crowded race to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom after he is forced out of office by term limits.

Atkins serves as Senate president pro tem and is a former Assembly speaker. She is the first female and first out LGBTQ+ president pro tem in state history and also the first legislator since 1871 to hold both leadership posts.

She is terming out in the Legislature and had been widely expected to make a bid for governor.

Atkins’ experience running the Assembly and the Senate makes her “uniquely prepared” to lead the state, as does a personal narrative that’s taken her from a childhood in poverty in rural Appalachia to the corridors of California power, she said.

“I don’t really fit the mold of past governors or even some of the fellow candidates,” she explained. “Clearly I’m not a man. I wasn’t born into wealth or privilege. And I wasn’t appointed to my first big political office. My story is much more like the Californians that I meet every day.”

Atkins’ time as the Senate leader ends in February when Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) takes over the post.

Atkins began her political career on the San Diego City Council after serving as a women’s clinic administrator. As Assembly leader, she championed a $7.5-billion water bond that was approved by voters in 2014, fought back against planned tuition hikes at the University of California and battled for a new state tax credit for the working poor.

She touted the fact that she has “negotiated eight on-time budgets with two different governors,” saying she’d been able “to go toe-to-toe and support the programs and policies that matter most in people’s everyday lives.”

Atkins has been a champion of affordable housing while serving in Sacramento. Her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, also has worked for two successful housing and economic firms while Atkins has been in office.

Announcing her candidacy in a bright pink suit before a crowd gathered at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, Atkins emphasized her blue-collar roots and her feminist identity. She described growing up as a miner’s child in Virginia in a house that lacked indoor plumbing, and said she first heard of California as a “magical place” her father had visited while serving in World War II. She eventually followed her sister to San Diego and began working at a feminist women’s health clinic.

Numerous union leaders gave speeches backing Atkins’ candidacy, a powerful signal in a heavily Democratic state where labor’s largesse is influential in statewide contests.

“Her toughness and her intelligence and her blue collar upbringing — she gets us,” said Frank Hawk, chief executive officer of the Western States Regional Council of Carpenters. “And the reason she gets us, is she’s one of us.”

Atkins has nearly $2.3 million in a campaign committee for lieutenant governor that she opened several years ago, according to filing records with the California secretary of state’s office, and will be able to use those funds for her gubernatorial campaign. Major donors to the committee include building trades unions, nurses and firefighters associations, and the California Real Estate PAC.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis jump-started the gubernatorial race when she announced her candidacy last spring. Newsom, who is advised by the same political consultants as Kounalakis, followed a similar timeline before his 2018 bid for governor, announcing three years early.

California Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond launched his bid in September. Former state Controller Betty Yee has also said she plans to run, but she will not formally launch her candidacy until after the March primary, she said Wednesday. Yee opened a campaign committee this week, she said, and sent a fundraising email this week saying she was “officially laying the groundwork” ahead of her campaign.

Kounalakis has raised $3.7 million in her campaign committee, and Thurmond has raised more than $665,000 since he launched his campaign committee.

State Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has said he is “seriously considering” but has yet to officially throw his hat in the ring.

Several women, including former Hewlett-Packard chief Meg Whitman and the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have run in the past, but California has never had a female chief executive before — putting Atkins, Yee or Kounalakis in position to break the governor’s mansion’s glass ceiling, should any of the three prevail.

“You’re talking about five candidates, each of them having notable strengths, each of them on the face of it very different from one another,” veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow said of the group. “But if you step back for a minute, this is an incredible tribute to what the political system — or at least the Democratic Party in California — has become.”

The fact that the makeup of the field of contenders — or, in Bonta’s case, potential contenders — includes three women, three people of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community shows a leadership pool that is far more representative of the state’s population, Sragow said.

Staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.

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