New California Senate leader says his priorities are climate change, homelessness and opioid crises

Feb 2, 2024, 9:41 PM

State Senate President Pro Tempore Designate Mike McGuire, of Healdsburg, poses in the state Senate...

State Senate President Pro Tempore Designate Mike McGuire, of Healdsburg, poses in the state Senate Chambers in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. McGuire will replace current Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins when he is sworn-in Monday Feb. 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When California Sen. Mike McGuire takes over as leader of the state Senate on Monday, it will be the first time in decades that the state’s top two legislative leaders aren’t from a major urban center.

But McGuire says the issues that most afflict rural districts like his — including childhood poverty, opioid addiction and housing shortages — resonate with the 39 million people living across the state.

“Everything that I just mentioned are concerns of Californians in Eureka and concerns of Californians in Los Angeles,” McGuire said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

McGuire, 44, comes from a family of prune farmers and was first elected to public office in 1998, when he won a school board seat in the small city of Healdsburg. He was elected to the state Senate in 2014 and has since authored legislation to protect marine life, support cannabis farmers, make cellphone service more reliable during power outages and fight the impacts of wildfires, an issue that hits close to home.

The Democrat’s district spans from just north of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.

McGuire will succeed state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who recently announced her bid for governor in 2026.

As Senate pro tem, McGuire will be one of the most powerful politicians in California as he helps drive decisions about which policies make their way through the Legislature and appoints lawmakers to key committees. He will lead the Senate for two years before terming out of the Legislature in 2026.

All the while, McGuire will work with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Assembly on the state budget. He will have to balance the reality of the state’s projected budget deficit of nearly $38 billion with ambitious proposals from his caucus, including a bill by state Sen. Steven Bradford of Los Angeles to create an agency that would help Black families research their family lineage.

He will lead alongside Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Democrat from a rural part of California’s central coast. While McGuire grew up in a farming family, Rivas was the grandson of farmworkers.

Rivas, who was sworn into his leadership post in June, said recently that he first met McGuire at a 2010 California State Association of Counties training for new supervisors while McGuire was representing Sonoma County and Rivas was representing San Benito County.

“We share a lot of the same priorities and experiences,” Rivas said.

While they hail from rural areas, the two lawmakers continue to market themselves as leaders who will champion issues, from housing to education and climate, that are seen as priorities up and down the state.

Chris Lopez, who chairs the policy group Rural County Representatives of California, is proud to see lawmakers from rural areas lead both chambers of the Legislature. He hopes they pass legislation to expand broadband access.

“We know that while the policy may not always go our way, that in the back of their minds, they have considered us, because they have walked in our shoes,” Lopez said.

The last time a lawmaker representing McGuire’s region led the Senate was in 1866, while the last Senate leader from a plant farming background was from 1894 to 1903, said Alex Vassar, a legislative historian at the California State Library.

McGuire was raised primarily by his mother and grandmother in Sonoma County, a popular wine region. McGuire’s grandmother, who ran his family’s prune-turned-grape ranch, taught him to “work hard, work together” and to “never take no for an answer for the issues that you believe in,” he said.

“At my core, I believe that we have to focus on policies that affect people’s everyday lives,” McGuire said.

McGuire has spoken in broad strokes about wanting to address California’s persistent homelessness crisis and continue the state’s ambitious climate goals, but he and his team have been light on policy specifics as he prepares for the new job.

Policy advocates and fellow lawmakers described McGuire as an honest, hard-working leader who is willing to listen to a variety of opinions.

Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, a Republican representing part of San Diego County, said he has a good working relationship with McGuire.

“I’m making sure that millions of California voices are being heard, and Mike McGuire is very respectful of that,” Jones said. “He’s respectful of our opinions even when he disagrees with them.”

Kristina Bas Hamilton, a longtime labor lobbyist in Sacramento, doesn’t think McGuire’s leadership style and politics will differ greatly from his predecessor. She said they are both “down-to-earth lawmakers that have always been accessible and open doors to conversations.”

McGuire’s smooth transition into Senate power stands in contrast to a chaotic handoff to Rivas from former Speaker Anthony Rendon. McGuire will step into the role with no prior experience in the Assembly, a departure from many of his predecessors, including Atkins, who was previously the Assembly Speaker.

McGuire said he was dismissed due to his age when he was first elected to the Healdsburg school board at age 19. At one meeting, a fellow board member patted him on the head and said, “Isn’t he cute?” he recalled.

“Obviously, that was quite upsetting,” McGuire said. “But I always accept a challenge.”

McGuire later served on the Healdsburg City Council before election to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2010. Supervisor David Rabbitt, who served alongside McGuire, said he can call McGuire up, ask him whether a policy will get passed and McGuire will set realistic expectations.

“For me, that’s kind of a golden type of relationship to have, where we don’t have to kind of play the political games with one another,” Rabbitt said. “I think that actually has been the secret to his success.”

___ Austin is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: @sophieadanna

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New California Senate leader says his priorities are climate change, homelessness and opioid crises