The burgeoning field to be California’s next governor grew even more crowded Friday as Toni Atkins, the San Diego Democrat who has held the state’s top legislative posts, launched a bid to succeed Gov Gavin Newsom in 2026.
Atkins — who has made history several times over as the first out lesbian to be Assembly Speaker, as well as the first woman and LGBTQ+ person to lead the Senate — is betting that her long resume in elected office coupled with her boundary-breaking profile is the winning formula to distinguish her from the pack.
“It’s a combination of story and experience,” Atkins told POLITICO in an interview. “I truly believe my record shows I’m the most qualified candidate based on the experience and the things that I’ve done.”
Atkins, now serving as Senate leader, has been at the top of the legislative food chain for much of her tenure in Sacramento. The leadership roles have given her tremendous sway in negotiating budget deals and pushing policy priorities such as affordable housing and abortion rights.
But being a Capitol power broker rarely translates to widespread notoriety, leaving Atkins with a steep climb building name recognition among the state’s voters.
“I know the work is going to be daunting. I know it’s going to be hard,” Atkins said. “I’m going to spend every waking minute figuring out how to introduce myself to people across California.”
She added: “I don’t come from wealth, I don’t have that to fall back on. So I am going to have to raise money, and fortunately, I’ve had experience doing that as the Speaker and the Pro Tem to protect my caucuses.”
The allusion to her hardscrabble Appalachian upbringing offered a barely veiled contrast with Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who declared her candidacy for governor last spring in an early push to get out ahead of potential contenders. Kounalakis, a former ambassador and major Democratic donor, has drawn on family wealth to power her past campaigns.
Both Kounalakis and Atkins are striving to make history as the state’s first female governor, as is former state controller Betty Yee. The field is stacked with a number of potential ‘firsts’ — Atkins could be the state’s first LBGTQ leader, Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is Filipino American, could be the first Asian American governor and Tony Thurmond, the state schools chief, could be the first Black person and Latino to win the top job.
Atkins, 61, is still serving as Pro Tem before handing over the reins to state Sen. Mike McGuire on Feb. 5. Her gubernatorial kick-off, which was rumored in Capitol circles for months, took place Friday morning at the Air and Space Museum in San Diego, which has been her California home base since she moved to the state in 1985 to help care for her sister’s newborn.
Among those present at the launch event were California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a longtime ally, and her political mentor Christine Kehoe, the former San Diego legislator.
“If someone had told me when I first came to California that I would be here today, I probably would have laughed out loud at how crazy that sounded,” Atkins said in prepared remarks. “I had always been too different. Too poor. Too country. Too gay. … Do I think my story provides some kind of golden ticket to the governor’s office? Of course not. But my experience defines me.”
Atkins served as a director of a women’s health clinic [Womancare Clinic in San diego – abortions through 24 weeks] before entering local government, first as a City Council staffer before getting elected to the Council in 2000. In 2010, she was elected to the Assembly, where she won the speakership in 2014. One year later, she made the unorthodox choice to challenge a sitting Democrat for a state Senate seat (the incumbent, Marty Block, later dropped out) and ascended to the upper chamber in 2017. The next year, she was sworn in as Senate leader, making her the first person in 150 years — and third ever in state history — to hold the top job in both houses.
With her Southern drawl and low-key demeanor, Atkins is a well-liked figure among political insiders. Her leadership tenures have seen relatively few controversies, though she has been scrutinized over how her spouse Jennifer LeSar’s affordable housing consulting business flourished while Atkins’ Capitol clout grew….