On a foggy January morning in his hometown nestled in Northern California wine country, state Sen. Mike McGuire was at an elementary school doing a dance called the “wheelbarrow” and explaining insurance policy to children who were more eager to talk about their 4-H pigs.
The Sonoma County Democrat then rushed off, driving past rolling green hills and dewy vineyards, to have coffee with firefighters who are banking on him to help a region that has been repeatedly devastated by wildfires and often feels overlooked by state leaders.
At the Healdsburg Fire Department, a staffer struggled to get McGuire out the door in time so that he could make it to a Chamber of Commerce event three hours north in Eureka. There, he would partake in a hobby perfectly suited to his sense of urgency and penchant for squeezing as much as he can into the time he has: auctioneering.
New California Senate leader Mike McGuire dances with children at Alexander Valley School in Healdsburg on Jan. 26. (Mackenzie Mays)
“Mike is the Energizer Bunny of California politics. He gets around, he walks the district. It is a hallmark of his approach,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State who taught McGuire there more than 20 years ago. “He believes that hard work and perseverance can offset any challenges he might have.”
Now, McGuire, who was sworn in as the new leader of the California Senate on Monday, will need to harness that energy as he takes on his biggest challenge yet — guiding the Legislature’s upper house as the state grapples with an estimated $38-billion budget deficit. The Senate leader plays a powerful role negotiating the state budget with the governor and the Assembly speaker, making it one of the most influential positions in state government.
At a swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol on Monday, McGuire vowed to “buckle down” and right the budget in the same way that Californians struggling financially are forced to “live within their means” and make sacrifices in their personal spending.
“We know that tough decisions lie ahead,” McGuire said in an emotional speech on the Senate floor that at times drove him to tears. “We are going to protect our progress.”
McGuire was sworn in as he held his squirmy 2-year-old son and stood alongside his wife, a school principal in Healdsburg. Monday’s event played up the small-town hospitality of McGuire’s rural district, with signs that welcomed attendees to “come on in and stay awhile.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Gov. Jerry Brown, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero and past Senate leaders including John Burton attended the ceremony. Many from McGuire’s district were also in attendance, including his eighth-grade math teacher.
Despite the budget woes on the horizon, McGuire painted a picture of a resilient California that leads the nation in several policy areas, including climate change and abortion access, even in bad financial times.
“No matter what you watch on cable news, we are America’s economic engine,” he said Monday.
Time is of the essence. McGuire has until 2026 to make his mark as Senate president pro tem; at that time he will be forced out of the Legislature by term limits.
At the top of his to-do list is responding to the state’s far-reaching homelessness crisis.
He said to expect the Senate to prioritize counties’ “successful implementation” of CARE Court, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mental health reform plan that could force some people living on the streets to receive treatment.
“No matter if you live in Crescent City, or in downtown L.A., you want the homelessness crisis solved. It’s unacceptable, and the state and our communities must do better,” McGuire said.
But speaking to reporters at the Capitol after Monday’s ceremony, McGuire declined to give details on the plan or signal what is to come otherwise from the Senate this year, saying he still needs to meet with his fellow lawmakers.
Often seen jogging through Capitol corridors to make it to one of several committees he sits on and wearing headphones on the Senate floor so as not to miss a call, McGuire is vowing to pare down his trademark multi-tasking and “laser focus” on issues including affordable housing, fentanyl and retail theft.
His fellow lawmakers from both political parties joked Monday about his stamina, saying they didn’t know he had a desk on the Senate floor because he never sits.
For six months, McGuire has been on the road, traveling to speak with voters beyond his coastal district, which spans seven counties from the Bay Area to the Oregon border. In the month of December alone, he met with climate activists in Sacramento, public transit advocates in San Francisco, business owners in Fresno, wine experts in Sonoma County and homeless advocates in Humboldt County.
“If I have to eat another gas station hot dog, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he joked.
He’s not up for reelection. It’s just what he does.
“He feeds off of this. It’s not a game, it’s authentic,” said James Gore, a Democratic member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors who plans to run for McGuire’s seat when his time is up in 2026.
His breakneck pace started decades ago with a string of record firsts. In 1998, he became the youngest person elected to the Healdsburg School Board at age 19 in the bucolic town where he grew up. Then he became the city’s youngest mayor. He went on to serve on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and by 2014, he was in the state Senate.
McGuire started working in high school at a radio station to help his family make ends meet. He was raised by his mother and grandmother — a hard-nosed prune farmer whom McGuire credits for his career.
“She taught me to be the hardest-working person in the room,” he said of his grandmother. “She told me that there are smarter people than you out in this world and you’ve got to work together.”
His unanimous appointment by Democrats as Senate leader came with the blessing of his predecessor, Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who is running for governor in 2026, and without the drama of the competitive leadership campaign that played out on the other end of the Capitol in the state Assembly.
But in some ways, McGuire’s appointment comes as a surprise. He represents a rural district in a powerful position long held by senators from major cities. He is a straight white man helping lead a state that is predominantly Latino amid calls for more diversity in Democratic politics.
“It speaks to his leadership,” said Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), vice chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus. “Regardless of the identity politics, I really think that he supersedes that with his policies. More than anything, it’s his style of collaboration that is appreciated.”
McGuire nodded to progressive ideals for greater diversity in political representation in his inaugural speech Monday, as both legislative houses — and the governor’s office — are currently led by men.
“Here in the Senate, we look more like the communities we proudly represent,” McGuire said, noting that there are more women and more people of color serving in state office than ever before and vowing to work with minority caucuses to promote their issues.
McGuire gave labor unions credit on Monday, saying that “in California, we go to the mat for the rights of workers.” But in a Democratic supermajority Legislature where unions have a lot of sway, McGuire has not always voted with organized labor. In 2016, he did not support a bill that expanded overtime pay for farmworkers, voicing concerns about the impact on small farmers.
Republicans, too, describe McGuire as a fierce collaborator, negotiator and moderator with no off switch.
“He’s just very hardworking and he’s always on the move. I would say if there was competition for the position, whoever that was wouldn’t have been able to keep up with him in the first place,” Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones (R-Santee) said, noting that he “vigorously” disagrees with many of his policy stances.
Last year, McGuire authored bills to expedite offshore wind development and to support small-scale cannabis farmers. He supported controversial bills to decriminalize psychedelic drugs and give striking workers unemployment benefits — both of which failed to get Newsom’s approval.
McGuire, who warns he sounds “hokey” when he talks about loving his work, said “I’m not big on labels” when asked about being considered a moderate on some issues in the liberal California Legislature. “I’m all about action. My only focus is on delivering results,” he said.
As for what happens when his term is over, McGuire has raised more than $800,000 for a campaign for state insurance commissioner in 2026.
But his supporters back in his hometown of Healdsburg are certain that his aspirations are bigger than that.
McGuire dodged a question about his plans after the state Senate, saying, “It’s not what’s keeping me up at night.”
As someone who seemingly fills every hour of his calendar, two years is “an eternity.”
Back at Alexander Valley School in Healdsburg, McGuire was speedily teaching 10- and 12-year-olds accustomed to wildfires about “home hardening” and public risk insurance models in his auctioneer voice. He demanded a countdown while he packed in his answers to the children’s questions.
“Time me 60 seconds,” he said. “I want to beat the recess bell.”