A California first: woman signs bill into state law

For the first time in California’s 171-year history, a woman has signed a bill into state law.

Gov. Gavin Newsom normally signs the laws in California, but he left the state on Wednesday night for a family vacation in Central and South America. State law requires Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis to act as governor until he returns.

The Legislature on Thursday morning passed a bill to extend a law preventing some renters from being evicted until the end of June. The bill had to be signed into law on Thursday because the old law was set to expire and tens of thousands of renters could have been evicted starting Friday.

It ended up being an historic moment for the nation’s most populous state, which has a reputation as a progressive powerhouse but has never elected a woman governor.

"It was very humbling. And I did feel that sense of history," said Kounalakis, who also signed a separate bill relating to elections on Thursday. "For many years women have been writing legislation ... but no woman has ever signed a bill into law. And it felt like a moment in history that we should recognize as important."

California has elected plenty of women to other statewide offices.

In 1992 voters sent two Democratic women to the U.S. Senate. Dianne Feinstein still is serving while Barbara Boxer retired in 2017 and was replaced by Kamala Harris, who previously was state attorney general and now is vice president.

California’s female power was on display during President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, when Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat behind him. Pelosi has represented San Francisco in Congress since 1987.

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Kounalakis, a former president of a real estate development company who served as ambassador to Hungary under President Barack Obama, is California’s first female lieutenant governor. She was elected in 2018 and replaced Newsom.

The state’s No. 2 executive has limited power. She casts tie-breaking votes in the state Senate and serves as a University of California regent, among other posts. Those who hold the office sometimes use the post to boost name recognition for future statewide campaigns — as Newsom did.

Historically, women don’t run for governor at the same rate as they do other offices, according to Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. She said women usually make up about 25% of gubernatorial candidates nationwide. It’s one reason there have been just 45 women who served as governors in U.S. history.

"People have these kind of unconscious biases, even against women in the executive position when they are the boss," said Kim Nalder, professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento. "When they are members of a legislature they are members of a group. That plays into the positive stereotypes people have about women being good at collaboration."

California is one of 19 states that have never elected a woman as governor. That likely won’t change this year as Newsom is favored to win reelection. But it could change in 2026 when Newsom can’t run again because of term limits.

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California has four women elected to statewide office now while 38 women are in the Legislature — both all-time highs. Along with Kounalakis, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Controller Betty Yee, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins all could run for governor in 2026.

Kounalakis said any woman with a statewide platform should be thinking about running for governor — including herself. But with that election more than four and a half years away, she wasn’t ready to commit to running for the office just yet.

"I think that what’s important is that the women who could have a chance at being elected governor think about how we honor each other’s abilities, because there is plenty of pressure for women to not help each other, when in fact the way that we’ll see a women governor in the future is because women help one another," Kounalakis said.

Newsom is scheduled to return to the state on April 12.

"The governor could have changed his plans. But he’s extremely supportive of elevating people around him, particularly those from underrepresented groups," Kounalakis said. "And I am very grateful to him for helping to make this happen."