The California Senate will get a new leader after Democrats on Monday tapped a North Coast lawmaker as the next president pro tem of the upper house, marking a transition at the Legislature’s top ranks from leaders who represent urban population centers to rising power for politicians from largely rural districts.
State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) will take over for Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) at a yet-to-be-determined date in 2024, according to a statement issued by the two leaders. The transition in the Senate comes after a busy weekend of political wrangling over the succession. McGuire, 44, solidified his position with the support of Atkins, who terms out of office next year.
“I am confident that this will be a seamless transition, and that Sen. McGuire will continue to guide the Senate and California down a path of success,” Atkins said in a statement Monday evening.
McGuire praised Atkins as “one of the most effective and thoughtful leaders of our time.”
“Words are not enough to express the extent of my gratitude, honor, and humility for being chosen by our united Caucus to lead the California Senate,” McGuire said in a statement. “Together, we will meet the challenges ahead with grace, courage, and determination. We will never stop fighting to make the promise of the Golden State real for every Californian.”
The change represents a second reshuffling of power in the Legislature this year and, as a result, a diminished role for Southern California lawmakers. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) replaced Lakewood lawmaker Anthony Rendon as the leader of the lower house this summer.
A native Californian, McGuire is known in Sacramento for his work on wildfire and the environment, key issues to his constituents in a district that encompasses much of the Northern California coast from Del Norte County at the Oregon border down through Marin County.
McGuire, who terms out in 2026, has been an outspoken critic of Pacific Gas & Electric, calling out the company for not maintaining its equipment, failing to cut back vegetation around power lines and for causing wildfires. As a confidant and No. 2 to Atkins, McGuire was intimately involved in landing policy deals among the governor, Senate and Assembly on the infrastructure plan this year and the climate package last year.
“He been able to carve out influence. He’s been able to carve out what things look like at the end on legislation,” said David McCuan, chair of the political science department at Sonoma State. “Mike sees himself as a negotiator and a deal maker.”
Atkins has led the Senate since 2018, when she was sworn in as the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ president pro tem in state history. She was named president pro tem of the Senate two years after serving as speaker of the Assembly, becoming the first legislator to hold both leadership posts since 1871.
Atkins grew up in poverty in rural southwestern Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and a seamstress. Her upbringing motivates her work in the Legislature where she’s an advocate for women and families, with a focus on housing, affordability, reproductive freedom and environmental protection.
The president pro tem, who is among a pot of politicians considered to be future gubernatorial candidates, gave autonomy to committee chairs but also guided the Senate with a steady hand. She steered the upper house through the final year of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s governorship and maintained a professional working relationship with Gov. Gavin Newsom in spite of tensions between Democrats over the governor’s approach to policymaking.
She’s been at the helm of the Senate through a tumultuous time in state history, including the #MeToo movement, an anti-vaccine advocate throwing menstrual blood on the Senate floor, the Donald Trump-era and the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGuire started his political career on the Healdsburg school board at age 19. He was elected to Healdsburg City Council in 2004 and became the city’s youngest mayor. He joined the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2010 and was elected to the state Senate in 2014.
“He works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen in these jobs and he’s just proved himself time and time again,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), a friend and colleague of McGuire.
Though his ascension brings new power to the North Coast, becoming speaker is often about timing and interpersonal relationships, said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic consultant.
Given that he terms out of the Senate in 2026, McGuire’s tenure as pro tem is expected to be short and a bridge between Atkins and whoever follows him.
“It’s probably timing more than location,” Acosta said. “And if the case is, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the transitional pro tem for a couple years and then somebody else can put it together,” I can see people saying like, ‘Yeah, that works for me.’”
McGuire will takeover at a challenging time, both economically and politically. California lawmakers were forced to trim their wishlists this year in light of a $32 billion budget shortfall, a downward trend some analysts suggest will continue in the years ahead.
The outcome of the 2024 presidential election will leave California lawmakers playing the role of cheerleaders during Biden’s second term or acting as the counter punch to Republican rule in Washington. The supermajority of Democrats in the state Legislature also means leaders face demands and needs from more caucus members, who they need to keep happy to stay in power.
McCuan described McGuire as both incredibly hardworking and a people pleaser. But Dodd said McGuire has had no problem telling him no over the years as majority leader.
“He’s able to deliver bad news or say no to all of us,” Dodd said. “I’ve been told no by Sen. McGuire many times.”
McGuire is eyeing a run for insurance commissioner in 2026. He’s raised more than $240,000 for the campaign from January through June.