California’s first lesbian Senate leader could make history again if she runs for governor

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The first time Toni Atkins acted as the governor of California, she used her powers to honor the passing of San Diego Padres baseball player Tony Gwynn while playfully rebuffing Jimmy Kimmel’s advice that she “ invade Oregon. ”

It was 2014, and Atkins — the first lesbian to be the speaker of the state Assembly — was filling in for former Gov. Jerry Brown, a quirk of the California Constitution that requires governors to put someone else in charge whenever they leave the state.

Atkins, now the president pro tempore of the state Senate, has filled in as governor a few more times since then, most recently in July when she signed three bills into law and quipped that she was thrilled to once again step into the governor’s shoes, “ although I have better shoes. ”

Now, the 61-year-old lawmaker is turning her attention once again to the governor’s office — only this time, she’s exploring a much longer stay.

“I’m very interested in looking at that possibility” of running for governor, Atkins told The Associated Press in an interview, saying publicly for the first time what many have assumed since she announced she would step down as the Senate’s top leader next year. “I am looking at it seriously.”

The race to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom will likely be a Democratic free-for-all sure to attract the party’s top talent for the chance to lead the nation’s most populous state and the world’s fifth largest economy. California voters have never elected a woman to the governor’s office, nor a person who is openly LGBTQ. And a host of other Democratic candidates are also vying to make history.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis was the first to formally announce her candidacy just a few months into Newsom’s second term. Tony Thurmond, the Black state superintendent of public instruction, is also in, along with former Controller Betty Yee. Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is Filipino, has said he is seriously considering a run.

But Atkins is banking on her experience to give her an edge. That includes a brief stint as mayor of San Diego, one of the nation’s largest cities. And it includes becoming just the third person and first woman ever to hold both of the Legislature’s top jobs: speaker of the Assembly and president pro tempore of the Senate, where she negotiated eight state operating budgets and had her hands in countless major policy decisions.

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

California’s top legislative leaders are some of the most powerful people in the state, but it often doesn’t feel like it. While they negotiate major polices, it’s the governor who gets the attention when the deals are done.

That’s especially true for Atkins, who has been a more quiet leader than most. During her tenure as Senate leader, Democrats have grown their caucus to 32 out of 40 seats — their largest majority since 1883. That majority means there is little incentive to work with Republicans. But Atkins made sure Republicans had their bills heard in public hearings and even pushed for former Republican Leader Shannon Grove to be included in briefings with the Newsom administration.

“She always included us and there was never any surprises. I didn’t agree with what was going on, but we had input and participation,” said Grove, who noted she and Atkins bonded over their impoverished upbringing and a shared love of country music icon Dolly Parton. “She understands that we represent a portion of Californians as well and we were duly elected and therefore our voices should be heard.”

Atkins grew up in rural southwest Virginia, where her dad was a miner and her mother was a seamstress. Her childhood home did not have running water, and some of her earliest memories are of walking down a hill with her twin sister to fetch water from a spring to use for cooking and doing laundry.

As a young lesbian in Appalachia, Atkins dreamed of moving to California. She got her chance when her twin sister joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. Atkins moved there to help care for her sister’s young son, and never left.

In San Diego, Atkins was director of a women’s health clinic that performed abortions. She was also politically active, working to help elect Christine Kehoe to the San Diego City Council. Kehoe hired Atkins to work for her, and then urged her to run for her seat when Kehoe was elected to the state Assembly.

“Toni is not the kind of person that wants to be the smartest person in the room. She wants to be the most helpful and effective person in the room. And oftentimes she is,” Kehoe said.

Atkins followed her mentor to the state Legislature in 2010, where she soon found herself in a contentious race for speaker against Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles. Atkins won, but left after two years to run for the Senate.

It wasn’t long before Atkins was selected by her colleagues to lead the state Senate, forcing her to work with Rendon, who had replaced her as speaker in the Assembly. Their relationship was rough at times, but fruitful for Democrats. Their partnership expanded Medicaid to include all eligible adults regardless of immigration status and free meals for public school students.

“We had problems, but I think it was, you know, related more to ambition than anything and, you know, probably to an extent immaturity on my part, too,” said Rendon, who plans to run for state treasurer in 2026. “Toni Atkins is a very forgiving person. I have not always been the easiest person to deal with. But she, you know, kept coming back and trying to forge a relationship.”

Click here to read the full article in AP News

How Laphonza Butler Could Reshape California’s U.S. Senate race

Laphonza Butler — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pick to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein — will be sworn in today, making history as the first openly LGBTQ person and the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate.

But how long does she want to keep the job?

She isn’t saying, yet.

“This week Laphonza is focused on respecting and honoring Sen. Feinstein’s legacy and getting ready to serve the people of California in the Senate,” Butler spokesperson Matt Wing told CalMatters Monday. “Politics can wait.”

Her decision whether to run for the seat, however, will be central to California politics heading into 2024. She would join a crowded field of Democratic candidates already vying for a full six-year term in the Senate — U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.

Now, the Secretary of State’s office confirmed Monday, there will be two sets of elections in both the March 5 primary and Nov. 5 general election — a special election to determine who serves the final two months of Feinstein’s term and the regular election to decide who gets the full six-year term after that. Voters faced a similar double election last year for the state’s other Senate seat, held by Alex Padilla, also appointed by Newsom. 

A poll released Monday, but conducted Sunday before Butler’s appointment was announced, suggests that California voters generally favor appointing a Black woman to Feinstein’s seat, said Christian Grose, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southern California. Butler ranked third among nine potential appointees in the survey, and drew more support when respondents were told more about her.

And the large share of undecided voters — roughly a third, according to his poll — could be a way in for Butler, but she must “expand her name recognition” among voters if she decides to run in 2024, he said. 

For Lee, Porter and Schiff, it could be an advantage to also run in the special election. If they win, they get seated sooner and accrue seniority, which would give them an edge over other senators newly elected in 2024, Grose said. 

Plus, running in both elections would allow them to double their campaign contribution limits. “Adam Schiff has raised a lot of money. He can now go back to all the same donors he maxed out and raise more money,” Grose said. Schiff’s campaign reported Monday he brought in another $6 million in the third quarter and had $32 million in cash on hand.

Lee spokesperson David Graham-Caso confirmed Monday she intends to run in the special election, and Butler’s appointment changed nothing for the campaign. In a statement, Lee said she is looking forward to working with Butler and wishes her well.

“I am singularly focused on winning my campaign for Senate,” Lee said in the statement. 

Porter’s campaign spokesperson Lindsay Reilly on Monday did not say whether Porter will run in the special election, but praised Butler for “standing up for women and working families” during her career. 

Schiff’s spokesperson did not return a CalMatters inquiry for comment Monday.

A fourth Democrat in the race could divide the party’s vote further and allow a Republican to sneak into the top two. In a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week, Schiff at 20% and Porter at 15% were well ahead. Lee was at 8% among likely voters and Republicans James Bradley and Eric Early were at 5% each. In the survey, 47% named other candidates or didn’t know.

But Grose said that without a prominent Republican candidate in the race so far, polling suggests it is most likely that two Democrats will advance to the general election. That, he said, is “healthy” for the state, because a competitive race between Democrats will allow independents and Republican voters to have “more of a voice.”

“The state is so lopsidedly Democratic that it just doesn’t matter if a Republican advances to the general election,” he said. 

Butler could wait as late as Dec. 8 to decide, but is certain to face pressure to announce her plans well before then.

For now, she has the enthusiastic support of the governor, who has not endorsed any of the other Democrats running and who did not make it a precondition of the appointment for her not to run.  

“We didn’t have that conversation. I said, ‘This is up to you.’ That was the end of that conversation,” Newsom said during a Monday press conference. 

The governor, who picked Butler over the weekend, said while multiple people expressed interest in the appointment, Butler was “the only choice.” He deemed her “next-level qualified.”

Butler, who is both Black and lesbian, is “uniquely positioned” to take on the “cultural purge” by Republicans in America, Newsom said, arguing that the GOP is launching an “assault” on the LGBTQ and Black communities.

“I just think that Laphonza Butler is … simply the best person that I could find for this moment in this job.”

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black senator to represent California and the most recently elected Black woman to the Senate, will administer the oath of office to Butler at the U.S. Capitol today, one day before Feinstein lies in state at San Francisco City Hall.

Butler, 44, president of pro-abortion rights organization EMILYs List and longtime labor advocate and Democratic strategist, has the support of most unions, including the Service Employees International Union Local 2015 that she led. 

The 310,000-member California Teachers Association also celebrated her appointment Monday. “She’s a true change-maker and a strong champion of labor unions and public schools,” David B. Goldberg, president of the union, said in a statement.

The governor’s office compiled a long list of praise by leaders of various Black, LGBTQ and other groups. And Newsom dismissed criticism from Republicans that she doesn’t live in California at the moment, noting she re-registered to vote in California.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

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Incoming California Sen. Laphonza Butler’s address shows her living in Maryland

The appointment of Laphonza Butler to become California‘s newest senator is already raising some eyebrows as she appears to be registered to vote in Maryland with an address in that state.

Registration records indicate that Butler lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her mailing address the same as her residential. She registered as a Democrat as of Sept. 12, 2022.

Butler is the president of EMILY’s List, the self-described “nation’s largest resource dedicated to electing Democratic pro-choice women to office,” and a longtime leader in California before her move to Maryland.

On Sunday night, the newest California senator’s biography on the EMILY’s List website listed that “Laphonza grew up in Magnolia, MS, and attended one of the country’s premier HBCUs, Jackson State University. She lives in Maryland with her partner Neneki Lee and their daughter Nylah.”

As of 7 a.m. Monday, the organization has removed the line that she lives in Maryland.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) appointed Butler on Sunday night. She will succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died at 90 on Friday. Newsom had long promised that the next senator he appointed would be a black woman. In appointing Butler, he passed over Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and other black lawmakers or leaders in the Golden State.

Click here to read the full article in the Washington Examiner

California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein Announces Retirement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – California’s longest-serving senator, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, will not run for reelection next year. 

The announcement was made Tuesday on Twitter and on her official website. However, the public announcement appears to have come as a surprise to Feinstein, according to multiple reports.

When asked about her retirement, she told reporters,“I haven’t made that decision, I haven’t released anything.”

Feinstein’s staffer injected telling the senator “We put out the statement.”

Soon after, Feinstein is heard on audio recording telling reporters that, “So it is what it is. I think the time has come.”

According to the initial announcement, Feinstein said she plans to remain in office through the end of her term, which ends at the end of 2024.

“I am announcing today I will not run for reelection …but intend to accomplish as much for California as I can through the end of next year when my term ends,” Feinstein tweeted. “Even with a divided Congress, we can still pass bills that will improve lives.”

At 89 years old, Feinstein is the oldest senator. 

She had been dogged by accusations in recent years that her effectiveness in the Senate has been hindered by her age.

Other Democrats had already jumped in to run for her seat, even before she made the inevitable announcement. 

Democratic Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam Schiff of Burbank launched rival Senate campaigns in recent weeks. Earlier this month, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would support Schiff if Feinstein did not seek re-election. 

Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland is expected to jump into the contest as well.

In recent years, questions have arisen about Feinstein’s cognitive health and memory, though she has defended her effectiveness.

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992. Previously, she became mayor of San Francisco after the assassination of then-Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Feinstein will be remembered for her fight against the “epidemic of gun violence.” She achieved the passage of the landmark, federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 and has advocated for its reinstatement since it expired in 2004.

In 2019, she introduced three pieces of gun safety legislation in the Senate: an updated assault weapons ban, the extreme risk protection order act to help states develop court processes that allow family members to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals and a bill to raise the federal age to purchase assault weapons and high-capacity magazines from 18 to 21.

Click here to read the full article in FoxLA