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State Sen. Mike McGuire becomes first North Coast majority leader in 30 years

State Sen. Mike McGuire


State Sen. Mike McGuire

State Sen. Mike McGuire recently gained a new title — majority leader — which takes him up a rung on the Capitol ladder to the second-highest-ranking position in the California Legislature's upper house.

The Jan. 19 appointment by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins also marks the first time in 30 years that a North Coast representative has been named to the post — a milestone not lost on the 42-year-old Healdsburg resident who comes from a long line of farmers.

 In a recent interview with the Journal, McGuire said he believes he will "bring a unique view to this leadership position," noting such key posts are often held by elected officials from urban areas. 

 "I'm one of the few democrats who represents a rural region of California, and I'm proud of it," he said.

 As majority leader, McGuire said he will be working with Atkins to set policy and budget priorities and his office now manages the entire Senate floor, scheduling "every policy vote, every budget vote," and overseeing the movement of bills through the Senate process.

 "I'm incredibly grateful to serve in this new role but I want to make it very clear: My top priority has been and will always be the North Coast. And we've got a lot of work ahead of us," McGuire said.

 McGuire, who served as assistant majority leader for the last three years, replaces Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who is termed out of office this year.

"Sen. Hertzberg leaves huge shoes to fill, of course, but knowing Sen. McGuire and his energy, he will work to fill them, shine them, put in new laces and resole them, all within two and a half minutes," Atkins said in a release announcing the changes.

 First elected to the state Senate in 2014, McGuire's mercurial rise in politics began more than two decades earlier when at 19 he became the youngest person elected to the Healdsburg Unified School District board before becoming the city's youngest mayor. After an inaugural term as a Sonoma County supervisor, he turned his sights to the state Senate, winning handily in 2014 before taking 76 percent of the vote to overwhelmingly win re-election in 2018.

 Over the years, McGuire has authored a number of bills with North Coast connections, including the creation of the Great Redwood Trail that aims to transform abandoned railroad tracks into a meandering pathway connecting Humboldt Bay to its counterpart in San Francisco. His legislation to halt a bid to bring a "toxic coal train" down the now defunct tracks of the Eel River Valley — which could derail the trail project — just passed the full  Senate.

 During Donald Trump's presidency, McGuire co-authored a bill that would have required presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on the primary ballot in California. While it was signed by the governor on its second go-around, the California State Supreme Court later struck down the law.

Cal Poly Humboldt's Political Science Department Chair Stephanie Burkhalter said McGuire's appointment to majority leader represents "a vote of confidence" in his abilities by Atkins and his fellow Democrats in the Senate. 

And, she said, it potentially sets him up to take over the state Senate's top slot when Atkins is termed out of office in 2024, or if she steps down for other reasons. McGuire, who is up for re-election this year, is eligible to serve through 2026.

"It's immensely important to the North Coast that our state senator is in such a prominent role in leadership in the Legislature; at a minimum, it means that our needs and perspectives are articulated and considered in every piece of legislation that the Senate considers on the floor," Burkhalter told the Journal.

 The sprawling Second District — stretching from Marin County to the Oregon border — faces some of the greatest challenges in California, McGuire said, but it's also a resilient community.

 "I'm going to fight for the state and I'm also going to have a laser focus on tackling some of those critical issues in rural California: childhood poverty, homelessness, wildfires, our climate crisis, affordable housing," McGuire said.

 On the local level, McGuire points to his office's work to secure state funds toward those ends, including the creation of a mental health crisis center in Eureka and permanent housing units with wraparound services for those facing homelessness, as well as backing for the nursing programs at College of the Redwoods and Cal Poly Humboldt.

 McGuire said he was thrilled to see the state's $433 million investment to transition Humboldt State University into Cal Poly Humboldt, the state's third polytechnic campus and the only one in the northern reaches of California, calling last week's official designation "historic."

 "It's a game changer for the campus community, it's a game changer for the regional economy and the entire North Coast," he said.

 Efforts are also underway to increase broadband access to the rural reaches of the state by extending fiber optic lines along highway right of ways, McGuire said, noting he believes the North Coast, which has more households without internet service than other parts of California, will be "happy with what they are going to see in the coming 12 months."

 On a statewide level, McGuire, who co-chairs the Senate Climate Action Working Group, said California needs to lead the nation in combating the climate crisis, adding that Atkins is advancing the "most aggressive policy and budget package the state has seen" on the subject.  

 "Our climate crisis must be at the top of the priorities list here in the state and throughout the nation," he said.

 And with wildfires becoming a year-round threat to Californians' lives and livelihoods, with each new season eclipsing the past, the state needs to build upon last year's historic investment in wildfire prevention, preparedness and response, McGuire said.

 To that end, McGuire said, the state needs to address the CalFire firefighter shortage that left crews stretched desperately thin last year as blazes broke out across the state. Staffing at the agency "peaked in 1975, before I was born," McGuire said. "We are in the era of megafire and we don't have the personnel to keep up with the current demand."

 Since taking office, McGuire said that in addition to devastating wildfires and extreme droughts, he's also seen his district weather floods and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

 "Why I love where we live is even in our most darkest days, the North Coast is incredibly innovative — we never give up, we never give in and we're all in this together," McGuire said.

 That outlook is one McGuire hopes can be translated to the state level as California prepares to tackle the next set of challenges ahead.

 "I think it's a unique opportunity for all of us to work together and my bottom line is I don't care if someone is a Republican or a Democrat," he said. "We're Californians first and my focus is on ensuring the future of the North Coast and the Golden State is bright." 

Kimberly Wear is the digital editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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Kimberly Wear

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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