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Blake Jones

How labor could make or break Tony Thurmond's campaign for California governor

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond speaks outside of Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School on July 21, 2021, in Chula Vista, Calif. | Denis Poroy/AP Photo

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Tony Thurmond is running for governor, entering an open field early in a bid to become the first state schools superintendent elected California's chief executive.

The former Democratic assemblymember and local school board member on Tuesday became the third candidate to declare for the 2026 race after Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and former state Controller Betty Yee. The viability of Thurmond's campaign is likely to hinge on backing from labor unions, which were pivotal in his ascension from state legislator to statewide official — though it will be at least two years before education labor groups decide whether to support his run for governor.

"SPI Tony Thurmond has been outstanding on defending education," CFT President Jeff Freitas said in a text message about the race. "But we are focused on the 2024 election and are not taking any positions on 2026 statewide candidates."

Donations and endorsements from the influential California Teachers Association and the state's second largest education union, the CFT, powered Thurmond to his first-term victory in 2018 against charter school executive Marshall Tuck. Labor backing can be crucial in governors' races, and Thurmond's prospective opponents, including state Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Attorney General Rob Bonta, have enjoyed support from union heavyweights in the past.

"Tony Thurmond has dedicated his life's work to fighting for working families," Thurmond campaign consultant Dave Jacobson said of the superintendent's labor bona fides in a statement. "He's been on the frontlines of the battle to raise wages and to protect the rights of working people. It's also why he's running for Governor, to build a coalition of, by and for the people, to create real, lasting change for workers and to build a better California for all."

Even so, teachers unions alone are unlikely to be the kingmakers they've been in state superintendent races — which are far less expensive than governor's races and draw in a narrower swath of policy and business interests. Candidates typically need a broad coalition to stay competitive, including from a large cross section of unions. Thurmond did in his last reelection campaign draw support from various trade unions including Service Employees International Union locals and unions representing electrical workers and sprinkler fitters, in addition to the CTA.

He also played a role in contract talks during past school strikes, including the last two teachers union strikes in Oakland. Thurmond traveled to Los Angeles during a strike earlier this year as Mayor Karen Bass hosted negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District at City Hall.

In his first campaign video, in which Thurmond is pictured fist-bumping a striking worker on a picket line, he calls for raising the state minimum wage and calls for higher teacher pay.

"We need real change: raising the minimum wage, jobs that pay the bills and wages that ensure nobody who works full time lives in poverty," Thurmond, a former social worker, said in the video.

The superintendent in an interview last month said he would prioritize higher education issues if he were to run for governor, including funding for public universities and broader health care access for college students.

Handling media and general consulting for the campaign is J&Z Strategies, which has done work for the United Teachers Los Angeles — CTA's largest affiliate — as well as state legislative campaigns, SEIU and the AFL-CIO. Tracy Pillows of McKinley + Pillows Fundraising is heading up Sacramento fundraising, and longtime Thurmond ally and consultant Annie Eagan is helping raise money elsewhere. MissionWired — which conducts digital fundraising for President Joe Biden — is also on the Thurmond campaign.

Thurmond's first term in office was fraught with challenges, including some of the nation's longest stretches of remote instruction during the pandemic. POLITICO reported that he'd quietly hired a friend out of stateand that had allegedly created a toxic workplace contributing to high turnover of senior staff at the California Department of Education. He told the Los Angeles Times that he's since had "tough conversations with myself" and that "I continue to reflect on those things."

Despite those problems, Thurmond sailed to reelection in 2022 over Republican challenger Lance Christensen. Christensen is now considering another run for state superintendent.

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