Abandoned by his father and orphaned at age 6 after the death of his mother to cancer, Tony Thurmond believes he could have easily ended up in prison.
Instead, the 50-year-old Richmond resident is the new state superintendent of public education. He is the second African-American in the position after Wilson Riles, who served 1971-83.
“I’ve spent years analyzing my experience,” he said. “Why is my experience not the experience of many of my peers? If you look who is in jail, it is largely African-American and Latino men and people in low-income backgrounds.”
Thurmond said he was able to succeed because he had extended family who stepped into raise him and because he went to schools where teachers believed in him and pushed him. “They were sending me a message that no matter how your life started, it can be bettered through education,” he said. “I accepted the message that education makes your life better.”
Thurmond narrowly won the race for superintendent against Marshall Tuck, powered by support from the California Democratic Party and the California Teachers Association.Thurmond formerly served an Assembly member forDistrict 15 (2014-18), representing the northern East Bay, and also was a member of the West Contra Costa Unified School Board (2008-12) and the Richmond City Council (2005-08).
His father never returned from the Vietnam War, and then his mother died, leaving four children.
His list of supporters includes Sen. Kamala Harris, who said: “Assemblymember Thurmond has been a lifelong advocate for children and young adults across the state. He has continuously been an advocate ensuring that no young person slips through the cracks. He has been an unwavering voice for change.”
But he also been criticized for never serving as a K-12 teacher and for the poor performance of the West Contra Costa Unified School District when he was on the board. “[T]he record shows that during Thurmond’s West Contra Costa leadership, district student achievement deteriorated compared to state achievement; facilities for at-risk students were filthy; the district was unhelpful to students of color; and all too many students were assaulted,” argued Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University in a Sept. 15, 2018 opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Tony Thurmond is not a person we can count on to improve California schools.”
Thurmond was born in Fort Ord in Monterey to a mother who immigrated from Panama and a father who served in the Army. His father never returned from the Vietnam War, and then his mother died, leaving four children. The family was split up with Thurmond and one brother going to a cousin they had never met in Philadelphia and the other two siblings staying in San Jose.
After finishing high school, he went to Temple University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and got his first taste of politics
Life in Pennsylvania wasn’t easy. His cousin struggled to take care of the children as she worked and went to night school. The kids were on free lunch and food stamps, and the family got government cheese.
But he and his brother were loved, and they were part of a strong faith community. The young Thurmond was made a junior deacon and led a junior choir. He was asked to read from the Bible in front of the congregation. In retrospect, he sees how that gave him early training in public speaking.
During high school, he worked the 11p.m.-7a.m. shift at McDonald’s and went go straight to class. He remembers that he made $3.35 an hour. “I knew that I had to get an education to achieve my dreams,” he said.
After finishing high school, he went to Temple University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and got his first taste of politics when his friend talked him to running for student government. He eventually became student body president. He lobbied for improved funding for higher ed and requested that the university divest from South Africa. “A lightbulb went off,” he said. “I saw it’s possible to use politics to make change.”
He said people initially tried to steer him away from entering politics in Richmond because of its high crime rate and economic troubles.
Graduate school followed where he earned dual master’s degrees in law and social policy and social work from Bryn Mawr University. He then launched a 20-year career in social work where he worked to help current and former foster youth, assist youth leaving the juvenile justice system and help people with developmental disabilities.
He returned to the Bay Area in 1999, eventually settling in Richmond, where he still lives and where his two daughters were born (he is now divorced). He said people initially tried to steer him away from entering politics in the city because of its high crime rate and economic troubles. But Thurmond decided that was the kind of city he wanted to serve in because he could help improve it.
It was the same reason he wanted to serve on the West Contra Costa school board. He bristles at criticisms of his work there, saying he knew the district was troubled when he joined it. He said his opponents distorted his efforts and sent an unfair message to the district’s kids. “I believe we should never tear down those institutions that are fighting hard to help those kids,” he said. “To attack simply because negative social economic conditions exist is misleading.”
He used to play flag football and sing in a gospel choir at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.
As the new state superintendent, Thurmond’s priorities include working to keep students safe from gun violence; fighting against Donald Trump’s efforts to privatize public education (Thurmond opposes for-profit charter schools); and bumping up science, technology, engineering and math programs in schools. He says he would like to build more partnerships between tech companies and schools and create more pathways for internships.
His daughters are now 16 and 12 and continue to attend public schools. He tries to drive them to school and stay as active as possible in their education.
He doesn’t have much time for fun these days; but when he has had free time, he loves watching movies and walking along the beautiful Bay Area coast. In another life, he used to play flag football and sing in a gospel choir at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, but now politics takes center stage.
But he has no regrets about his busy work schedule. He always knew that the path for him would involve using the political process to make change. “I’ve enjoyed being in politics and being a public servant,” he said.