It’s too soon to know whether California’s next governor will be a woman, with the race still two years away. But Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Sacramento on Thursday highlighted the possibility after the nation’s first female vice president spent time with two women aiming to become California’s first female governor.
At a historic mansion near the state Capitol, Harris met with Democratic state lawmakers, where she was introduced by Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), the first woman to hold that post. Then Harris attended a fundraiser hosted by another female first — Democratic Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, the first woman elected to that office.
Atkins and Kounalakis have already launched campaigns to run for governor in 2026 in what is expected to be a crowded field that will include at least one other woman — Betty Yee, vice chair of the California Democratic Party.
Neither of them was the focus of Harris’ visit. The vice president’s message Thursday to a friendly home-state audience was trained on rallying Democrats to reelect President Biden. She called this year’s election a “binary” choice between “a former president who openly talks about his admiration for dictators” and Biden, whose administration “is about lifting up the condition of the people.”
“The split screen could not be more stark. And the stakes could not be higher,” Harris said to donors gathered at the sprawling Sacramento home of Kounalakis’ parents, which featured marble columns, crystal chandeliers and golden candelabras.
Guests included Democratic Reps. Robert Garcia of Long Beach and Doris Matsui of Sacramento; Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California; and numerous lobbyists who do business at the state Capitol. Donors were asked to give between $5,000 and $50,000 to attend, according to the invitation, and Kounalakis said the event raised $648,000 for Biden’s reelection.
Ties between the vice president and the lieutenant governor go back about 20 years, Kounalakis said, to when Harris was first elected San Francisco district attorney. Kounalakis was running her family’s home-building business at the time and routinely helped raise money for Democratic politicians.
“We started having regular lunches together… around San Francisco, and just check in on what it was like to be a woman professional, some of the challenges that we had,” Kounalakis said in an interview. “We would often compare notes on shoes and suits, and where to get the best ones.”
Kounalakis said she once set Harris up on a date, but “it was not a love match.”
They remained connected as Harris’ career advanced. Kounalakis and her family donated at least $29,000 to support Harris’ campaigns for California attorney general in 2010 and 2014, campaign finance records show. When Kounalakis ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, Harris provided a critical endorsement “that built credibility for my campaign early in the race,” Kounalakis said.
Two years later, when Joe Biden was searching for a running mate, Kounalakis lobbied his campaign to choose Harris as his vice president.
“I felt that there was a lack of appreciation for her skills and her talents and her capabilities. A lot of us in California felt that way,” Kounalakis said.
She set up a Zoom meeting with Biden’s selection committee and invited elected officials and labor leaders from around California. Each one got two minutes to give a testimonial about Harris.
“Dolores Huerta’s was the most memorable to me because she stared down the selection committee and said, ‘We should be telling our daughters that being ambitious is a strength, not a weakness,’” Kounalakis recalled.
In Sacramento on Thursday, Harris described her visit as a homecoming of sorts, having spent six years working in state government as attorney general.
“She has close ties with so many members of our caucus. It was great to welcome her,” said Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas.
Harris talked to lawmakers about benefits California is getting from Biden’s initiatives, such as the federal infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science Act, which directs billions of dollars toward domestic semiconductor research and development, and told them that California plays an important role in pushing a Democratic policy agenda that can wind up shaping the nation.
“The message she sent was a great reminder of how important the work is that we do as a state Legislature,” Rivas said.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, saw it differently.
“Californians are worse off today because of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement that criticized “their disastrous policies” at the southern border, on the economy and on crime.
Atkins said she appreciated Harris talking with lawmakers about reproductive rights and abortion access, a key theme Democrats will push in races up and down the ballot in this year’s election. Harris’ reelection message was inspiring, Atkins said, and Democratic lawmakers feel a sense of pride that the nation’s first female vice president is a Californian.
What that will mean for the women seeking to break the glass ceiling in the California governor’s office remains to be seen.
“We all have these relationships,” with Harris, Atkins said. “She knows Betty Yee, she knows Eleni, she knows me.”
Atkins said “there was no jostling or jockeying” Thursday to shift Harris’ attention to California’s gubernatorial race in 2026.
“That day will come, I am sure,” she said. “But that was not today.”