Could California’s Next Governor Be Female?
This article was originally published in The New York Times by Shawn Hubler
California women have shattered some significant glass ceilings: Nancy Pelosi, the first female House speaker; Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the first all-female delegation to the U.S. Senate; Kamala Harris, the nation’s first female vice president.
But alongside all those famous firsts are some lingering imbalances in the state’s power structure. Men still hold about two-thirds of the seats in California’s congressional delegation, for example. In the Legislature, women have yet to reach the 50 percent level, even with record progress in the last election.
And so far, all of California’s governors have been male.
This week, political circles have been abuzz with the possibility that that last statistic could change soon. On Monday, the state’s first female lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, 57, began a campaign to succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2026.
Hours after Kounalakis announced her candidacy, Betty T. Yee, 65, a former state controller, confirmed longstanding rumors that she, too, would be running.
Three years is a hefty lead time, even by California’s standards, but campaigns and major media markets in the state are notoriously costly, and the two women are only the first candidates in what is expected to be a crowded field.
Kounalakis and Yee are veteran Democrats with longstanding roots in the state party and experience running statewide. And the lieutenant governor is wealthy and occupies a seat with a history of vaulting its occupants — including, most recently, Newsom — into the governor’s seat.
“I think most women in public office focus on just getting the job done,” Kounalakis told me this week. “But there’s also excitement about having a viable woman in the race, and in the race early.”
Yee agreed, saying in an interview that with issues like the state’s economy and abortion at the forefront, “it’s time for women to ascend to the highest offices of leadership.”
It isn’t entirely clear why California has lagged, even behind many conservative states, in electing women at the top of the state ticket. In past elections, according to Darry A. Sragow, a longtime state Democratic consultant, other factors affected the outcome far more than gender did.