he leader of the California Senate on Friday said she would run for governor in 2026, entering a campaign that is far from the minds of voters but is quickly filling with candidates in a state that requires frequent fundraising to compete in some of the nation’s most expensive media markets.
Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, made history as only the third person and the first woman to hold both of the state Legislature’s top jobs — speaker of the Assembly and president pro tempore of the Senate.
Atkins is still in the latter role, but plans to step down early next month as she enters the final year of her term and cannot seek reelection because of term limits.
California, despite its progressive reputation, has never had a woman or an openly LGBTQ governor. Atkins, who is a lesbian, could be both. But she’ll have to compete against a strong field of Democrats, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, former Controller Betty Yee and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis. Attorney General Rob Bonta is also considering a run to succeed current Gov. Gavin Newsom, who cannot seek a third term.
Kounalakis, Thurmond, Yee and Bonta have the benefit of appearing — and winning — in a statewide election, meaning voters will be familiar them. Atkins has only ever been elected by voters in San Diego.
But she is well-versed in the inner workings of the Capitol and policymaking. She has negotiated multibillion-dollar budgets and major legislation with two governors. And she has a compelling personal story — growing up in a house with no running water in rural Virginia before making her way out West and becoming one of the most powerful elected officials in the state.
“I certainly don’t fit the mold of past governors or even some of the candidates that will be in this race,” Atkins said. “I’m going to lean on my story, because I think Californians are going to want someone more like them.”
Atkins came to California in 1985 to help care for her sister’s young son. She later worked at a women’s health clinic that performed abortions before getting elected to the San Diego City Council. She had a brief stint as mayor before getting elected to the state Assembly in 2010 and the state Senate in 2016.
In the Legislature she worked with former Gov. Jerry Brown and Newsom to craft a series of budgets marked by multibillion-dollar surpluses. That ended last year when the state had a multibillion-dollar deficit.
Newsom has steadfastly refused sweeping tax increases to balance the budget — something Atkins, too, said she would try to stay away from if she were elected governor.
“We want to preserve what we’ve done. It took a lot of work,” Atkins said. “I would not gravitate toward raising taxes in this moment. I don’t think it’s called for yet.”