Tony Thurmond announces 2026 bid for California governor

California Supt. 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 after Gov. Gavin Newsom is forced out of office by term limits.

Thurmond made the announcement on Tuesday after publicly toying with the idea this summer, saying in July he was considering a gubernatorial run but “fully focused” on his current job as the state’s top schools official.

In a new ad, Thurmond, a former Democratic state lawmaker from the Bay Area elected superintendent in 2018, highlights his youth living in poverty, describing leaning on public assistance programs such as food stamps and working 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 became an orphan at 6 years old after his mother, an immigrant from Panama, died, and 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 any potential competitors but aims to position Thurmond as an advocate for the working class in a state that is also home to extreme wealth, a dynamic that could shape the race if California’s powerful labor unions get behind his campaign.

The California Teachers Assn. and other labor unions spent millions to help get Thurmond elected to the nonpartisan superintendency seat five years ago.

The only other candidate to have officially launched a campaign so far is Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat who comes from a wealthy family of home developers.

Read more: Hillary Clinton backs Eleni Kounalakis for California governor

Thurmond opened a campaign committee for governor in July, and has since raised $101,000, according to Secretary of State filing records, with most contributions coming from unions representing electrical workers, plumbers and boilermakers.

The Oakland Police Officers’ Assn. 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. While 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 implicit bias training.

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 Department of Education amid accusations of running a toxic workplace.

California 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 was also under fire in 2021 for hiring a friend living 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 for governor, including the maximum allowable donation of $36,400 from several Democratic heavy-hitters. They include: her father, Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, a real estate developer; Susie Tompkins-Buell, co-founder of clothing brands Esprit and North Face; George Soros, a financier who has donated to many progressive causes; and Sheryl Sandberg, a former Facebook executive.

Former State Controller Betty Yee also intends to run. She said Tuesday she will make her campaign official next year. For the time being, she said she is focused on getting President Biden reelected in her current position as vice chair of the California Democratic Party.

Yee, who is Asian American, joins Thurmond in the fight to become the first person of color named California governor and Kounalakis in the fight to become the first female governor in California.

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has also said he is “seriously considering” a run for governor in the election still three years away.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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