Mike McGuire wants to ‘lift up every person’ as new California Senate leader

Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, left, and Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, applaud newly sworn in Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg, at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Feb. 5, 2024. Photo by Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee via Pool

From the outside, Mike McGuire seems like exactly the type of person who would rise to the top of the California Senate.

The Healdsburg Democrat was student body president in high school, according to Sonoma Magazine, and his classmates voted him “most likely to become president” in the senior yearbook. After winning a seat on the local school board at just 19, McGuire then served on the Healdsburg city council and Sonoma County board of supervisors before his election to the Senate, where he already spent the past two years as majority leader.

But at his swearing-in today as the next Senate president pro tem — a powerful role heading the upper chamber of the Legislature that gives him a direct hand in guiding budget and policy decisions for 39 million Californians — an emotional McGuire marveled that he had made it at all.

“In other places in this country, a kid like me would have been forgotten,” McGuire said, recounting a modest youth in Sonoma County where his divorced mother scraped to put food on the table, he helped out on his beloved grandmother’s farm and he struggled to finish school.

“But not here in California,” he said. “In California, we fight to lift up every person, no matter your background, your skin color, who you are, who you love or how you identify. Here in the Golden State, we believe that anyone can do great things.”

Whether they still can is another matter. McGuire — known around the Capitol for his boundless energy and positive attitude — must now turn that optimism that the California Dream remains achievable towards solutions for the major challenges facing the state.

Chief among them is a projected multibillion-dollar budget deficit, which is expected to consume much of lawmakers’ energy this session. There is also an enduring shortage of affordable housing and the seemingly intractable homelessness crisis that has pushed many residents to the limits of their patience, as well as destructive natural disasters aggravated by climate change.

McGuire’s sprawling coastal district, which stretches from the northern Bay Area to the Oregon border, has been slammed particularly hard by wildfires in recent years. He told reporters that stabilizing the convulsing home insurance market is a top priority, though he is not a fan of the regulatory push to raise rates as insurers, who argue that their losses have become too great, flee California.

“Raising rates on homeowners is not the silver bullet,” McGuire said, suggesting that lawmakers should focus on hardening homes and communities to withstand fires. “We’ve seen other states roll out the red carpet for insurance carriers, giving them higher rates, and those insurance carriers still left that market.”

Termed out of the Legislature in 2026, McGuire must rush to make his mark on the Senate. His tenure is unlikely to radically change the business of the Legislature; like his predecessor, he is a liberal Democrat who must wrangle an ideologically diverse supermajority Democratic caucus, and the budget deficit could inhibit many of their most ambitious proposals.

But the optics of McGuire’s ascension are notable: It’s the first time since 1866 that a lawmaker from the north coast leads the Senate, the Associated Press reported.

Alongside his Assembly counterpart, Speaker Robert Rivas of Hollister, both legislative leaders now hail from more rural, agricultural areas of California — a shift in the epicenter of power. McGuire succeeds Toni Atkins of San Diego, while Rivas replaced Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles County last summer.

And while Californians continue to elect an increasingly diverse Legislature — including record numbers of women, Latino and openly LGBTQ+ members this session — those representatives have chosen a straight, white man as Senate leader. That has not been the case for nearly a decade.

“Know that representation matters,” McGuire told reporters, “and I will be following through with my commitment and my promise” to work closely with those diverse lawmakers to address the issues they care about.

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