Toni Atkins could be California’s first lesbian governor

California Senate leader Toni Atkins could become the state’s first lesbian, member of the LGBTQ+ community, and female governor.

Atkins, a Democrat, announced Friday at the San Diego Air and Space Museum that she will run for the post in the 2026 election. Atkins, 61, represents the 39th Senate District in San Diego County. 

She joins an already crowded field of candidates seeking to succeed Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom when he leaves office due to term limits.

“If someone had told me when I first came to California that I would be here today, I probably would have laughed out loud at how crazy that sounded,” she said in making the announcement, according to Politico. “I had always been too different. Too poor. Too country. Too gay. … Do I think my story provides some kind of golden ticket to the governor’s office? Of course not. But my experience defines me.”

Toni Atkins announces she is running for California governor.

Toni Atkins, speaking on the California Senate floor earlier this month, will run for California governor in the 2026 election. Photo: Sen. Toni Atkins Facebook page.

Atkins is the first lesbian to lead either the Assembly or the Senate and only the third lawmaker ever to hold both posts.

She will leave the president pro tempore position in February and will term out of the Senate at the end of the year.

Atkins had said late last year that she was considering a run, but this makes it official.

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 worked 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 Kehoe’s vacated council seat. Atkins was also San Diego’s acting mayor for a time.

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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 the governor’s absences, she has served as acting governor and signed bills into law.

She is the first lesbian to lead either the Assembly or the Senate and only the third lawmaker ever to hold both posts. She will leave the president pro tempore position in February and will term out of the Senate at the end of the year.

In her announcement speech, “Atkins emphasized her blue-collar roots and her feminist identity,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Several union leaders spoke in support of her. Kehoe and California Secretary of State Shirley Weber were there to back her as well.

Atkins also emphasized her legislative accomplishments, noting that she has “negotiated eight on-time budgets with two different governors” and managed “to go toe-to-toe and support the programs and policies that matter most in people’s everyday lives,” according to the Times.

She has been an advocate for affordable housing, a tax credit for the working poor, reproductive rights, and holding down the cost of higher education. She is married to Jennifer LeSar, a housing consultant.

The 2026 governor’s race is expected to include at least two other women. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis has announced she is running, and former Comptroller Betty Yee plans to announce soon.

Yee, who is Asian-American, would be the first person of color to be California governor.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who is Black and Latino, also has declared his candidacy.

Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is of Filipino heritage, is considering a run.

All are Democrats, and given the state’s makeup, the governor’s office is almost sure to remain in Democratic hands.

“I truly believe my record shows I’m the most qualified candidate based on the experience and the things that I’ve done,” Atkins told Politico in an interview, adding, “I have a vision for what I want to do and how I want to do it.”

Two years ago, voters elected the nation’s first and second lesbian governors — Maura Healey in Massachusetts and Tina Kotek in Oregon. Kate Brown, Kotek’s immediate predecessor, was the first out bisexual governor in the U.S.

In 2018, Jared Polis, of Colorado, became the first out gay man elected governor of any state.

Jim McGreevey came out as gay after resigning in 2004 as governor of New Jersey.

This article originally appeared on, and is shared here as part of an LGBTQ+ community exchange between Q Voice News and Equal Pride.

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Trudy Ring

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