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Column: Hardscrabble trailblazer Toni Atkins would be an intriguing candidate for California governor

A woman holds her hands together sitting in front of a California state flag.
California state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins at a briefing with district representatives in November in San Diego.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)
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State Senate leader Toni Atkins is thinking seriously about running for governor of California. And hopefully she’ll enter the race.

Not that she necessarily should be elected. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s way too early in the election process to decide who should succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will be termed out at the end of 2026.

But it’s not too early to know that Atkins, 61, would be a quality candidate worth considering — based on her experience, knowledge and demeanor.

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Judging by her record of leadership in both houses of the state Legislature, the San Diego Democrat could be a productive governor.

She’d certainly enhance the field of choices for California voters.

The election won’t be until 2026. But candidates have been running — or trotting barely noticed — for months. The field is almost certain to expand.

On Friday, state Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) showed us how a healthy, productive legislature works — one that independently pushes its own ideas about public policy and leaves it to the governor to decide whether to sign or veto a bill. Atkins rejected Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request to shelve her landmark anti-Trump environmental protection measure, SB 1.

Sept. 16, 2019

In California, gubernatorial candidates — particularly those who are little known outside political circles — must leap into the fray early. It takes time to to organize local support groups and raise the necessary tens of millions of dollars to compete in this far-flung, highly diverse state where TV advertising in major metropolitan areas is extraordinarily expensive.

So far, these Democratic candidates are officially running:

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

Raising campaign money isn’t a problem for her. Kounalakis and her housing developer father are mega-rich. She could practically pay for her own campaign. Additionally, she was a major Democratic fundraiser for years — that was her ticket to becoming the U.S. ambassador to Hungary in the Obama administration. And she has access to big-time political contributors.

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But she has been an obscure lieutenant governor. Unlike her predecessor, Newsom, who also was a former mayor of San Francisco, Kounalakis hasn’t made any attention-getting waves in her first elective office. So she has a lot of public selling to do.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

The former assemblyman has done little to attract attention as the state schools chief. He’ll need to raise lots of money to sell himself. But he’s undoubtedly the only candidate who can claim memberships in the legislative Black, Latino and Jewish caucuses.

Former state Controller Betty Yee.

She’s got a sharp accountant’s eye and is thoroughly familiar with the state’s budget books — a veteran policy nerd who has long advocated unsuccessfully for tax reform. But she’s not exactly a household name and needs tons of money.

There are other potential candidates:

State Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta.

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The former assemblyman from Alameda County, who was born in the Philippines, is expected to run. And the attorney general’s job has always been a good springboard for higher office.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Becerra — former state attorney general and a 12-term influential congressman from Central Los Angeles — is very tempted to run, I’m told. He would immediately become a leading candidate.

And it’s conceivable that if either U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank or Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine loses next year’s U.S. Senate race, they might run for governor.

Then there’s Atkins.

There have been 40 California governors and all have been white males — in this, ironically, the nation’s most diverse state. But the odds are good that the 41st will be a woman or a man of color.

Sen. Mike McGuire, a North Coast Democrat, is poised to become the next leader of the California Senate, replacing Sen. Toni Atkins of San Diego in 2024. The transition marks an unusual rise in power for politicians from largely rural districts.

Aug. 28, 2023

Atkins already has set a trailblazing history. She was the first female Senate president pro tem. Before that, she was the first lesbian Assembly speaker. In fact, she was only the third legislator — and the first in 146 years — to lead both legislative houses.

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That says a lot about Atkins’ pleasant, nonthreatening personality and leadership skills.

Asked if she plans to apply for the job of leading the state, Atkins told me: “I am seriously considering it. Giving it serious thought.’’

She’ll decide “soon,” the senator said.

“One of my biggest challenges” is raising enough money to get known statewide, she acknowledged. Over the last decade, however, she has raised roughly $60 million to help Democratic colleagues get elected. So she does have fundraising skills.

But hitting up interest groups for money when you’re the Senate leader with the power to kill or pass legislation is one thing. It’s another when you’re only a lame duck or retired lawmaker.

Atkins will step down as president pro tem on Feb. 5 and be replaced by Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), who represents a sprawling district on the North Coast. Atkins will be termed out after 2024, ending a 14-year legislative career.

She’s charming on the outside but tough inside — like the time she ignored Newsom’s request to shelve an environmental protection bill and sent it to him anyway. He immediately vetoed it.

“That was one of our toughest moments,” she said. “But you move on.”

She may be too liberal for many moderates and certainly is for conservatives. But she’s also a pragmatist. Her forte is to negotiate with all sides — and even to work occasionally with Republicans, although they’re essentially irrelevant in Sacramento.

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“I’m a pragmatic person — a progressive who has gotten things done,” she said.

Atkins counts among her proudest achievements passing abortion rights legislation, permanent state funding to help low-income families buy affordable housing, earned income tax credits for low-income people and a $7.5-billion water bond.

Atkins has a hardscrabble, rural Appalachian background that has shaped her desire to help the poor.

She grew up the daughter of a miner and a seamstress in southern Virginia, in a small rented house with no running water and a privy outside. The family had no health insurance, and she never saw a dentist until age 24.

After college, she moved to San Diego to help a pregnant sister whose military husband was shipped overseas. She got involved in community service and was elected to the City Council.

Atkins would be an intriguing, worthwhile addition to the mix of gubernatorial wannabes.

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