San Diego’s Toni Atkins announces her 2026 bid
By Morgan M. Hurley
On Friday, Jan. 19, State Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, wearing a dark pink pantsuit, climbed the stairs of a temporary platform set up inside the San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park.
Atkins had just been endorsed and introduced by California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who had previously represented Assembly District 79 in San Diego. The former colleagues hugged warmly.
Then, with airplanes loudly descending into Lindbergh Field overhead, Atkins looked out beyond the teleprompters, the news cameras, the fluttering campaign posters, and the WWII airplanes hanging from the ceiling of the museum’s atrium, and smiled. As she gazed into the sea of cheering supporters, she said, “Good morning, San Diego. You are beautiful. Thank you.”
Atkins has been working for San Diegans as long as most can remember. But her humble beginnings in the Appalachian region of western Virginia are just as well known; her father was a lead miner and her family was very poor. They lacked running water, and had to carry buckets from the nearby stream to the outhouse and for use in their small home. She told the crowd that she didn’t do well in school until she received a donated pair of glasses from the local Lion’s Club. That stayed with her, she said, and years later, guided her to write legislation to remove obstacles to education for school children in California.
She shared with her supporters that she first heard about California from her dad who had visited the state while serving in WWII. Her twin sister later moved here with her husband, who was also in the service. In 1985, Atkins said she came out to help her sister with her young nephew when her brother-in-law deployed, and she never left. In fact, she and her wife, Jennifer LaSar, live in South Park and have for years.
Her first job in San Diego was with the WomenCare Clinic – A Feminist Women’s Health Center, at age 27. There, she helped women advocate for themselves when it came to their own healthcare and she comforted them when they had to navigate what she called a “wall of extremists” just to get inside. Her childhood and these early adult experiences, she said, impacted her greatly as a legislator.
She then worked for City Councilmember Christine Kehoe, who was the first LGBT councilmember in San Diego, and then followed behind her into the District 3 seat in 2000, when Kehoe moved on to the state legislature.
“That experience taught me how to build bridges and solve problems,” she said, pointing out her mentor Kehoe in the audience, adding that she has “deep gratitude” for San Diego and the many “friends and mentors” she has here.
While serving as city council president, she became acting mayor of San Diego for five months when Dick Murphy resigned. Then she ran for state assembly, and two years later, she became Majority Leader. Two years after that, she became Speaker of the Assembly. When she termed out, she ran for state senator, and two years later, she became State Senate President pro Tempore.
These three scenarios are quite remarkable. Rarely does a city councilmember become acting mayor. Rarely does a state assemblymember (there are 80 of them) become leader of their chamber. Rarely does a state senator (there are 40) become leader of the senate. And she has actually signed bills as acting governor when the existing governor was on travel, on more than one occasion.
Thus, Toni Atkins has risen to the top rank of leadership in all three offices she has held. In each case, she was elected to these positions by her peers – meaning she has always garnered respect across the aisle.
In addition, as she explained to the crowd assembled at the Air & Space Museum, she is the only woman, and the first person in 150 years, to have become leader of both chambers in the California state legislature.
In each of these leadership positions, she represented her colleagues negotiating legislation with not only the other chamber, but with the governors (Brown and Newsom) and their staffs, and she said that while being governor wasn’t her job title, “I had similar work in my job description.”
By 2026, Atkins’ path to the highest office in California will have taken 26 years, and will have included increasingly more responsibility with every step. Like Hillary Clinton and her resume when she ran for president, Toni Atkins appears to be the most qualified candidate to ever run for governor, and she will tell you that herself. (The pantsuit – whether deliberately or not – even pays homage to Hillary.)
“Many have said in 2026 it is time for California to finally elect a woman governor,” she told the cheering crowd on Jan. 19. “As the most qualified candidate running for governor who also happens to be a woman, I agree. I am ready to be governor.”
She currently has three contenders: Lt Gov. Eleni Kounalakis; State Superintendent of Schools, Tony Thurmond; and former State Controller Betty Yee. That makes it a very diverse field: a lesbian, an African-American; a Greek-American, and a Chinese-American. State Attorney General Rob Bonta has also been considering a run, but is currently undecided.
“It’s never been my ambition to be governor,” she told the crowd, “but it is my intention to serve as governor of California.”
Next month, Atkins will step down from her role as leader of the senate, but will remain a senator representing San Diego’s 39th district until her term ends in December. By launching her campaign now, it gives her just two years to connect with the 27 million eligible voters residing in California.
Assessing the crowd at her announcement, she seems to be off to a good start in San Diego, with a carpenters union, labor unions and united domestic workers all represented; a large contingent of LGBT supporters; and dozens of men and women of all backgrounds in the audience.
“I have an obligation to tell people who I am and who I am not,” she said. “And I am exactly who I am.”
She made several references to her wife and her wedding day and she didn’t shy away from kissing her wife on stage after her speech. The two then clasped their hands and raised them in unison as any straight couple on the campaign stage would do.
“My experiences define me and on this campaign, and as governor, I will stay true to the values I was raised on and the people and causes I’ve spent a lifetime fighting for and fighting with.”
For a young girl from Appalachia, the far away state called California was a fantasy-like place she’d only heard about from family members, but all these years later, it has become so much more.
“In this land of dreams, I found my passion, working in the service of people,” she said during her announcement. “How fortunate am I, that my little slice of California dream could come from helping others find their dreams?”
To learn more about or to follow Toni’s campaign, visit toniatkins.org.
—Morgan M. Hurley is the editor-in-chief of this newspaper. You can reach her at [email protected].
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