Tony Thurmond’s story isn’t like most people who have led the state of California. He didn’t come from money, power or influence. His mother, Cecelia, was an immigrant from Panama. A classroom teacher, Cecilia emphasized the importance of education in creating opportunity. It was his mother’s influence that instilled in Tony a passion for serving others.
Tony’s mother tragically passed away when he was six years old, and with his father out of the picture, Tony and his brother were raised by a cousin. When Tony was dropped off on his cousin’s doorstep, it was the first time they had ever met.
Childhood & Education
Growing up, Tony and his brother experienced poverty. Despite facing food insecurity and financial hardships, with the family often living on public assistance and food stamps, Tony’s cousin, a nursing assistant, continued to build upon the foundation his mom had laid by ensuring Tony and his brother had access to a quality education.
She also made sure Tony grew up well-rounded. Tony had the responsibilities of taking care of his siblings and cooking while his cousin was at work. They were also active in church. Without a family car, Tony, his brother and cousin would walk 45 minutes to church every weekend. While there, Tony would greet guests and run the junior choir.
As a young Afro-Latino child in what was then a very racially segregated Philadelphia, Tony was bused to a majority-white neighborhood every day to go to school. There, he occasionally faced discrimination and was once told to “get out of this neighborhood.” He nonetheless persisted and school became his sanctuary.
Empowered by caring adults, a strong public education and dedicated teachers who not only never gave up on him, but who also inspired him to give his all to everything he did, Tony found success in and out of the classroom. He was involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible, including drama club, debate, and wrestling.
After high school, Tony went on to attend Temple University where he became student body president. Tony worked his way through college to make ends meet – from loading UPS trucks to working the night shift at McDonalds for what was then the minimum wage of only $3.35 an hour. During this time, Tony experienced firsthand both the value and dignity of hard work, but it also helped him understand how hard it is for workers who make the minimum wage to get by, let alone get ahead.
The challenge of balancing work so that he could pay the bills and for college led to Tony struggling academically. Through a sense of determination and encouragement from his academic advisors, Tony earned his undergraduate degree and later secured two Master’s degrees from Bryn Mawr College.
Following these formative years, a lightbulb went off for Tony when he recognized that politics could be an avenue for change. He volunteered for President Bill Clinton’s campaign, then Gavin Newsom’s campaigns for County Supervisor and Mayor.
Armed with the lessons from his upbringing, Tony dedicated his life to helping young people with hardships similar to his own. He established a transitional housing program for young adults transitioning out of foster care, working to cut through government bureaucracy to get struggling young people a place to live.
Tony also worked to develop school-based mental health programs, including one aimed at addressing the issue of chronic absenteeism. The program took a mutli-facted approach by encouraging students to hold each other accountable and facilitating relationship-building with mentors in their community. The program was met with success, resulting in better attendance rates and setting young people on a better path forward.
Drawing on his passion for education, Tony also taught a life skills and civics class to a juvenile camp. At the end of the course, students were tasked with drafting a bill and presenting it directly to legislators, empowering them to advocate for programs to help young people facing similar challenges.
From mentoring struggling students to developing mental health programs, Tony did all of this with a single north star in mind: To give young people the same opportunities that he had.
Tony carried these experiences into his time on the West Contra Costa School Board, the Richmond City Council and California State Assembly, where he fought for legislation to make higher education more affordable, expand grant programs for foster youth, and invest in housing programs.
In 2018, Tony was elected as the 28th California State Superintendent of Public Instruction and was resoundingly re-elected in 2022. By prioritizing investments in public education, Tony secured funding to establish a universal Preschool program for every four year old, develop a universal meals program for every student, and recruit 10,000 counselors. Tony also led California through the major disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by distributing over $5.2 billion in funding for mental health counseling, protective equipment, and supportive technology.
A long time resident of Contra Costa County, Tony is proud to have the support of his daughters, Maya and Jayden, and his fiancé Vanessa.