Tony Thurmond, the superintendent of public instruction, becomes the second Democrat to launch a campaign for California governor in a race that is still three years away.
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is officially running for governor in 2026, becoming the latest Democrat to launch a campaign in a race that could draw a large field of contenders as Gov. Gavin Newsom is forced out of office by term limits.
Thurmond made the announcement Tuesday after publicly toying with the idea this summer. He said in July he was considering a gubernatorial run but was “fully focused” on his work as the state’s top schools official.
In an ad, Thurmond, a former Democratic state lawmaker from the Bay Area who was elected superintendent in 2018, highlights his youth living in poverty, describing how he leaned on public assistance such as food stamps and worked at McDonald’s during college.
“I didn’t come from money, power or influence,” he says in the ad, amid a montage of California governors past — all white men — while an actor playing a young Thurmond, who is Black, watches on. “My story is nothing like theirs.”
Thurmond was essentially orphaned at 6 years old after his mother, an immigrant from Panama, died, as his father, a veteran, was absent, according to the ad. He cites his Afro-Latino heritage and vows to tackle California’s economic inequality, calling for a higher minimum wage, higher pay for teachers and more affordable housing.
“California may be working for millionaires and billionaires, but for the rest of California, we need real change,” Thurmond said.
The ad does not target potential competitors but aims to position Thurmond as an advocate for the working class in a state that is home to extreme wealth — a dynamic that could shape the race if California’s powerful labor unions get behind his campaign.
The California Teachers Association and other labor unions spent millions to help get Thurmond elected to the nonpartisan superintendency five years ago.
The only other candidate to date to have officially launched a campaign is Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat who comes from a wealthy family of home developers.
Thurmond opened a campaign committee for governor in July, and has since raised $101,000, according to filing records with the Secretary of State’s Office, with most contributions coming from unions that represent electrical workers, plumbers and boilermakers.
The Oakland Police Officers’ Association has also contributed $5,000 to Thurmond’s campaign. In 2020, the Oakland school board voted to eliminate its campus police force amid national protests over the death of George Floyd. Although Thurmond has spoken out against police brutality and institutional racism, he took a more tempered approach then, not calling for the removal of officers from schools but for programs such as training in implicit bias.
Thurmond’s run for governor was announced one day after Newsom signed a bill that prohibits textbook bans such as those playing out in red states and attempted by conservative school boards in California. Like Newsom, Thurmond has leaned into increasingly politicized school culture wars, launching a textbook task force in June.
Voters overwhelmingly reelected Thurmond last year despite criticism of his handling of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and an alleged turnover problem in the state’s Department of Education amid accusations that he was running a toxic workplace.
Department of Education spokesperson Maria Clayton — Thurmond’s third director of communications in less than five years — left her post this month and could not be reached for comment.
Thurmond also came under fire in 2021 for hiring a friend who lived out of state as a top education official — a decision that violated California policy and led to at least two resignations.
Kounalakis has raised more than $2.6 million for her campaign, including the maximum allowable donation of $36,400 from several Democratic heavy-hitters. They include her father,
Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, a developer; Susie Tompkins-Buell, co-founder of clothing brands Esprit and North Face; George Soros, a financier who supports many progressive causes; and Sheryl Sandberg, a former Facebook executive.
Former state Controller Betty Yee also intends to run for governor. She said Tuesday that she would make her campaign official next year. As vice chair of the California Democratic Party, she is now focused on getting President Biden reelected.
Yee, who is Asian American, would vie with Thurmond to become the first California governor of color, and with Kounalakis to become the state’s first female governor.
Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta has also said he is “seriously considering” a run for governor.
Democrats are expected to dominate the election, which is still three years away.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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