California senate leader, first gay person to hold post, to step down
The leader of the California senate said on Monday she will step down from her leadership post, ending a historic run as the first woman and first openly gay person to lead the upper legislative chamber of the nation’s most populous state.
Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, said she will step down next year. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from the state’s North Coast region, will replace Atkins as the Senate’s president pro tempore.
Atkins made the announcement at a news conference with McGuire and most of the senate Democratic caucus standing behind her. The display of unity was in stark contrast to the leadership battle that embroiled the state assembly last year, when the new speaker, Robert Rivas, replaced former speaker Anthony Rendon.
Atkins cannot seek re-election because of term limits and must leave the senate at the end of next year. She said the caucus chose to announce the transition now because “a long, drawn-out successor campaign would not be in the best interest of the senate nor the people who we were elected to represent”.
“We have a lot of work to get through in the next few weeks,” Atkins said, referring to the chaotic final days of the legislative session when lawmakers will vote on hundreds of bills. “This work does not mix well with internal caucus politics being at the top of everyone’s minds.”
The leader of the California senate is one of the most powerful positions in state politics, acting as the body’s chief negotiator with the governor and the assembly speaker on key legislation and the state’s more than $300 bn annual operating budget.
Atkins is one of only three people in history to hold both top spots in the legislature. She has led the senate since 2018. Before that, she was speaker of the state assembly from 2014 to 2016.
McGuire was first elected to the senate in 2014. He has been an outspoken critic of Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility, whose equipment has sparked a number of huge wildfires that have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes.
In 2019, McGuire took on Donald Trump by authoring a law that required candidates for president to disclose their tax returns as a condition of appearing on the ballot in California. The part of the law that applied to presidential candidates was ultimately struck down by the courts. But the law still applies to candidates for governor.
McGuire praised Atkins as “a California trailblazer” and pledged to carry on her work, including focusing on climate issues, housing and access to abortion. But McGuire made it clear Atkins was still in charge.
“There is one leader, one leader at a time. And our leader here in the California state senate is Toni Atkins,” he said. “The pro tem and I, we are unified in our transition. And we can make this promise to each and every one of you. The next three weeks, getting these bills off the floor and into the governor’s desk is going to be smooth, successful and focused on the success of the Golden state.”
McGuire is known throughout the state capitol for his seemingly unending energy, often referred to by his nickname of the “Energizer Bunny”, according to the veteran lobbyist Chris Micheli.
His ascension to the senate’s top post means the legislature will have two leaders who represent mostly rural parts of California, a rare occurrence in a state where political power has historically been concentrated in the dense urban areas of southern California and the San Francisco Bay.
Rivas, who took over as assembly speaker earlier this summer, represents a district in the state’s mostly agricultural Central Coast region. McGuire’s district stretches from the northern tip of the San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border.
“I think these are parts of the state that deserve a little more attention and focus,” said Jennifer Fearing, a longtime lobbyist whose firm – Fearless Advocacy – represents non-profit organizations. “I look forward to it, what the difference their leadership can make on addressing longstanding disparities.”
McGuire’s term in office will be a short one. He is required to leave office after 2026 because of term limits.
Democrats control 32 of the 40 seats in the state legislature, giving them total control of what bills can pass. State senator Brian Jones, the Republican leader, said McGuire has “respect for differing viewpoints”.
“He has shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner and we are excited to continue this cooperation,” Jones said.