Lesbian Atkins to run for CA governor

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday January 19, 2024
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Outgoing state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins announced she's running for governor in 2026 at the San Diego Air and Space Museum January 19. Photo: Rex Wockner
Outgoing state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins announced she's running for governor in 2026 at the San Diego Air and Space Museum January 19. Photo: Rex Wockner

Toni Atkins, the outgoing president pro tempore of the state Senate and a lesbian longtime lawmaker, is looking to make history as the state's first woman and out governor.

Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, announced she's running for governor Friday at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in her hometown, joined by hundreds of supporters.

"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," said Atkins in her remarks. "I am ready to be governor.

"I have a little over two years to reach almost 27 million eligible voters in California. Based on my speech at our wedding reception, I know Jennifer [LeSar] thinks I am going to try to speak to each one of them individually," she quipped.

"Of course, I can't do that," she continued. "But, in asking people for their vote, I do have the obligation to tell folks who I am — and what I'm not.

"And before I go any further, I want to say to Jennifer, no announcement I ever make, no words I will ever say, can match getting to lawfully say 'I do' standing by your side."

If elected, Atkins would be the Golden State's first out and first woman chief executive. Current Governor Gavin Newsom (D), a former San Francisco mayor, is termed out but already several Democratic political leaders have announced their plans to run for the seat. Among them are Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Former state controller Betty Yee has also announced she's running. (There is currently one out statewide elected official: gay Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.)

Kounalakis rolled out some endorsements earlier this week that included gay Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego), chair of the influential housing committee, and more than a dozen other state lawmakers, according to Politico.

On Friday, the attention was on Atkins. Several union representatives spoke, telling the audience that Atkins "gets it."

"She's fought for prevailing wages — she gets it," said Val Macedo, business manager and secretary-treasurer of Laborers' International Union of North America, or LIUNA, Local 89.

Willie Pelote, a veteran and chair of the California State Fair board, gave a fiery speech.

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, Ph.D., introduced Atkins.

"We need someone who will fight for us," said Weber, a former San Diego assemblymember. "We need someone who understands what it means to be poor and proud at the same time."

Weber referenced the polarization of politics in the United States and noted the importance of democracy.

"I'm almost in tears because of what is happening in the world," Weber said. "I'm here because of the times in which we live. California is more that just a state, it's a country in itself."

Weber said the state needs someone like the state's last two governors, Newsom and Jerry Brown, and that while she had battles with each of them, they understood what it meant to lead.

Atkins talked about how it's time for the state to elect a woman as governor

"Let me also share some of what I am not," she said. "Well, I am not a man. As every other California governor has been.

"Now don't get me wrong. I love the two governors I have worked with. And one of the things I've liked best about them is how they respect and promote strong women: Ann Gust Brown and my friend chief of staff Nancy McFadden. First partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and chief of staff Dana Williamson. That says a lot," she said.

"But it's time to go the extra mile," Atkins said. "Many have said that in 2026, it's time for California to finally elect a woman governor. As the most qualified candidate running for Governor, who also happens to be a woman, I agree!"

Outgoing state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins has announced she's running for governor in 2026. Photo: Courtesy the campaign  

Atkins, 61, has long championed reproductive rights. She was one of the public faces of 2022's Proposition 1, a constitutional amendment that enshrined the right to abortion in the state's governing document.

She has also authored LGBTQ-related legislation. Most notably, last year she spearheaded Senate Bill 447, the BRIDGE Act, which stands for Building and Reinforcing Inclusive, Diverse, Gender-Supportive Equality. It ended the Golden State's ban on using taxpayer money for travel to states that have passed anti-LGBTQ legislation, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill last September and because it had an urgency clause, it took effect immediately.

Gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino) had authored the travel ban legislation several years ago. He previously expressed misgivings about ending it. Now, Low is running for an open South Bay congressional seat

Atkins said the repeal was needed because the state needed to try something new. While she denied that the travel ban was a failure, no state that had been added to it was then removed because it rescinded the homophobic or transphobic law that had landed it on the list.

Instead, Atkins' bill calls for a marketing program in those states attacking LGBTQ rights that Atkins said would "encourage acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community."

To date, there has been little news about the BRIDGE campaign or if it has started.

Raised in rural Virginia
Atkins was born and raised in rural southwestern Virginia. She has often talked about how she grew up in poverty. During the push to pass SB 447, she said that the goal of her legislation "is to speak to people's hearts and open minds. That's a pursuit that would have made teen Toni — that southwestern Virginia girl afraid to be herself back then — so proud."

The daughter of a miner and a seamstress, Atkins graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science from Emory & Henry College in Virginia.

In 1985, she moved across the country to San Diego, California, to help care for her sister's young son while her sister served in the U.S. Navy. In San Diego, before becoming involved in public service, Atkins committed herself to providing safe access to healthcare for women, becoming director of clinic services at Womancare Health Center at the age of 27, according to a news release provided by the campaign.

Her foray into public service began when Atkins served as an aide to San Diego City Councilmember and LGBT trailblazer Christine Kehoe, who later served in the state Legislature. In 2000, she was elected to replace Kehoe as the council's District 3 representative. During her eight-year tenure, Atkins provided steady leadership as interim mayor of San Diego in 2005 amid a challenging and tumultuous time at City Hall that resulted in other City Council members being convicted of wire fraud.

Elected by voters to the state Assembly in 2010, Atkins served there for six years. In 2014, her colleagues selected her to be the speaker of the Assembly — she became the first San Diegan and the first lesbian to hold the position. Atkins counts a $7.5-billion water bond and creation of the state's Earned Income Tax Credit among her proudest accomplishments in the Assembly, the bio stated.

In 2016, Atkins was elected to represent the 39th District in the state Senate. After just one year, she was selected by her colleagues to serve as Senate president pro tempore. In March 2018, she was sworn in, becoming the first woman and the first openly LGBTQ person to lead the Legislature's upper house. Atkins is the first person in 150 years, and the third person in California history, to lead both houses of the Legislature.

Atkins is a member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus.

Throughout her career, Atkins has been a champion for affordable housing, the environment, health care, veterans, women, the LGBTQ community, and mitigating the increasing impacts of climate change, the release stated. She has authored landmark legislation on housing, including SB 2, which created a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, a signature piece of legislation she worked on for several years, and SB 9, which streamlined the process for homeowners to create a duplex or subdivide an existing lot in single-family zones.

In 2022, Atkins introduced the "California Dream for All Program," an innovative new way for the state to help first-time homebuyers dramatically lower or eliminate their down-payment requirements and lower monthly mortgage payments. That same year, she authored several critical pieces of legislation, including SB 1375, which allows qualified nurse practitioners to provide abortions without the supervision of a physician, and the aforementioned Senate Constitutional Amendment 10 (Prop 1), a constitutional amendment to make explicit the fundamental right to abortion and contraceptives.

Atkins lives in the South Park community of San Diego with LeSar, and their dogs, Joey and Mia.

Atkins had set up a campaign committee for lieutenant governor in 2026, but can now transfer that money, about $2.3 million to her gubernatorial campaign. Meanwhile, gay Sausalito City Councilmember Janelle Kellman announced last month that she's running for lieutenant governor in two years, meaning the state's top two elected posts could both be held by members from the LGBTQ community.

Updated, 1/23/24: This article has been updated to include that gay Sausalito City Councilmember Janelle Kellman is running for lieutenant governor in 2026.

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