Could Toni Atkins Be California's First Lesbian Governor?

Toni Atkins Possible First Lesbian California Governor
Toni Atkins Possible First Lesbian California Governor
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California prides itself on diversity and inclusion, but to date, all its governors have been straight white men. That could change with the 2026 election, when Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, can’t run due to term limits — and the state could elect its first woman and first lesbian governor.

“I’m very interested in looking at that possibility” of running for governor, Toni Atkins, president pro tempore of the California Senate, recently told the Associated Press. Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego has also been Assembly speaker, the first lesbian to hold either of those leadership positions.

“I sort of feel like I’m addicted to responsibility,” she told the AP. “I think experience counts and matters, and I believe I have experience to continue to contribute in some way.”

Atkins grew up in a working-class family in rural Virginia; the family home did not have running water. She moved to San Diego in 1985 to help with child care for her twin sister, who was serving in the U.S. Navy. She then went to work for a women’s health clinic and later for San Diego City Council member Christine Kehoe, a lesbian who was the first out LGBTQ+ person on the council. When Kehoe was elected to the California Assembly in 2000, Atkins was elected to the council seat she vacated. Atkins was also San Diego’s acting mayor for a time.

Atkins was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and became speaker in 2014. She moved up to the state Senate in 2016 and became its president pro tempore in 2018. During governors’ absences, she has served as acting governor and signed bills into law.

Atkins told the AP that of all her legislative accomplishments, she is most proud of having enacted policies that help people in poverty, such as implementing the Affordable Care Act and offering tax benefits to impoverished families.

If she decides to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, she will have substantial and diverse competition. Announced candidates include Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, and former Controller Betty Yee. The latter two are both people of color — Thurmond is Black, and Yee is of Chinese descent. Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is of Filipino heritage, is considering a run as well.

Last year saw the election of the nation’s first two lesbian governors — Maura Healey in Massachusetts and Tina Kotek in Oregon. Oregon previously had a bisexual governor, Kate Brown. Colorado was the first state to elect an out gay man as governor, Jared Polis, who is in his second term. Another gay man, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, came out upon resigning in 2004; he’s now back in politics, running for mayor of Jersey City.