Labor leader and professional gardener Kathryn Lybarger confirmed Monday she is running for state Senate, joining a growing list of contenders vying for the termed-out Sen. Nancy Skinner’s seat.

Kathryn Lybarger. Credit: California Labor Federation

Lybarger, 56, who lives in Berkeley, is president of the 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation, which consists of 1,200 affiliated unions across the state and is one of the most influential forces in California politics. 

She works as a lead gardener at UC Berkeley and is president of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 30,000 University of California employees, including service workers, patient care technical workers and skilled craft workers. 

It’s her first time running for public office, and the field is growing: Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb and AC Transit Director Jovanka Beckles have each announced plans to run for the Senate District 7 seat, which represents Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland and several other East Bay cities. The top two performers in the March 5, 2024, presidential primary election will advance to the November general election. 

“I’m running because I’ve done blue-collar work my whole life,” Lybarger said in a phone interview. “My experience fighting to get bills passed in Sacramento has really shown me that it makes a difference when you have someone who comes from the effort to really fight, not just to help workers, but to empower them.”

She highlighted her work as an organizer pushing for a higher minimum wage and overtime pay for farmworkers.

Lybarger said her priorities include housing affordability and education — specifically, ensuring California adequately prepares young people for the work world, whether through college or trade school. 

She supports rent control and believes California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform is necessary. “CEQA has been used to stop affordable housing more often than it’s been used to address climate change,” Lybarger said. “It ought to be aimed at environmental quality and really improving that.” 

Lybarger sees a need to build more housing in some parts of the state. But, she added, “we have to go about it thoughtfully, and thoughtfully doesn’t mean that we drag our heels and we use the permitting process (and) lawsuits to stop affordable housing.” 

Lybarger and her wife have lived in Berkeley for more than two decades. 

Of particular importance to her family: Officially rescinding 2008’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage and still sits in the state constitution despite being struck down in federal court. 

Lybarger praised Skinner for her “strong work on behalf of all of us in the East Bay,” and said she wouldn’t represent a major departure from Skinner on most issues. 

“At the end of the day, what folks in the East Bay want is a house they can afford in a community that’s thriving, that’s safe,” Lybarger said. “They want opportunities for their kids, whether that’s in a university that won’t leave them in debt or in a really good job that lets their own kid then be able to dream for their own family … that’s what I’ve always fought for, and why I’m going to the Senate.” 

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...