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California Senate leader Toni Atkins announces run for governor in 2026

FILE: California state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday, July 10, 2023.
Rich Pedroncelli
AP Photo
FILE: California state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday, July 10, 2023.

The leader of the California Senate says she will run for governor in 2026. Democrat Toni Atkins made history as only the third person and first woman to hold both of the top jobs in the state Legislature.

The 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.

At a press event announcing her candidacy on Friday, Atkins called herself "the most qualified candidate running for Governor who also happens to be a woman."

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 Atkins 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.

"In 2026, we have the opportunity to elect a Governor who understands, and has lived, the challenges facing Californians struggling to get by and trying to get ahead," she said on Friday. "Someone who got free breakfasts at school and went to church camp on a scholarship. Whose parents never had time off and always had a doctor’s bill overdue."

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.

She launched her campaign at a rally in San Diego with support from labor unions representing carpenters and domestic workers. She was introduced by Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a fellow San Diegan who became the first Black woman to hold the office overseeing California elections.

In the Legislature Atkins 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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