Eleni Kounalakis Out to Prove ‘Lite Guv’ Can Wield Real Influence

The Diplomat-Developer Is One of Two Democrats Spending Millions to Capture the Office

Eleni Kounalakis
Courtesy Photo

The late Leo Tarcissus McCarthy, who served longer as California’s lieutenant governor than anyone in state history, once described his workday this way:

“You get up in the morning and check to see if the governor’s breathing,” he told a reporter. “If he is, you go back to bed.”

McCarthy’s crack is one of many such formulations about a job that Sacramento hacks sometimes refer to as “Lite Guv.” With a relatively infinitesimal budget of $1.5 million and only about a dozen staffers, the gig has few constitutional responsibilities, beyond serving as chief executive if the real governor is out of state or incapacitated.

Eleni Kounalakis, one of two Democrats now spending millions to capture the office, has heard all the jokes, however, but doesn’t buy the premise.

“If I’m successful, no one will ever ask what the lieutenant governor does again,” she said in an interview last week in Santa Barbara, a few hours before keynoting the Women’s Political Committee 30th anniversary dinner.

THE SACRAMENTO CONNECTION: Energetic, earnest and engaging, the wealthy 52-year old Kounalakis previously managed the big-time Sacramento development company founded by her father, Angelo Tsakoupolous, who’s also a major Democratic contributor. Among the beneficiaries of his largesse was former president Obama, who appointed Kounalakis as ambassador to Hungary, and who provided his endorsement for her campaign.

This year, Tsakoupolous kicked $5 million into an independent expenditure committee for his daughter’s race, which helped her finish first in the June primary. She won, 24 percent to 21 percent, over second-place contender Ed Hernandez, a veteran state legislator from Azusa, whom she faces in a Dem-on-Dem contest on November 6.

On election night 2016, Kounalakis had gathered with other Hillary Clinton backers at the Javits Center in New York City. Instead of a celebration, it began an unplanned odyssey into elective politics.

“People like me have been referred to as the Class of 2016,” she said, referencing the large number of women campaigning nationally in reaction to Donald Trump and his misogyny. “I was motivated to run for office after Hillary Clinton lost.”

BULLY PULPIT: The lieutenant governor’s influence stems from seats on the State Lands Commission, where Kounalakis vows to combat Trump’s bid to expand oil drilling offshore and on public lands, and on the UC Board of Regents, where she says she would focus her effort.

“The Regents is a big thing,” she said. “I really do have a goal that, after four years, people will know that the Lieutenant Governor’s office is responsible for engaging in public higher education.” Her “number one priority,” she added, is, “I will never vote for tuition increases.”

“I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, and it cost me two thousand dollars a year. It’s $62,000 a year for an MBA at Berkeley now — what the hell?” she said.

“What I hope to do in this position is not just vote against them but be known as the voice of activism around fighting tuition increase and fighting for the many other ways of making higher education affordable, starting with bringing down the cost of housing in higher education for our kids.”

A BROADER PORTFOLIO? Kounalakis views her developer background as a potential asset in state government’s aggressive attempt to expand California’s housing stock. Ever the diplomat, she quickly adds that it’s up to the governor to decide whether she would play a role in the matter.

The new governor, of course, all but certainly will be Gavin Newsom, the current Lite Guv, who spent much of the past eight years whining about the limits of his office.

“I am not presumptuous, because I think it’s really important to wait and see if I win this, and, if I win it, to wait and talk with the next governor,” she said.

Despite that acknowledgement of the subordinate role of the job she seeks, Kounalakis is confident about making an impact on politics and policy.

“The reality is, it’s much more power than being an unelected, ordinary citizen,” she said.

Well, there is that.


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