After her friend and former boss lost the presidential race in 2016, Democrat Eleni Kounalakis remembers Hillary Clinton urging women to run for public office.
It was a pivotal moment that inspired Kounalakis to run for California lieutenant governor in 2018, a position that is now the basis for her recently launched campaign to become the state’s first female governor.
That effort will get a boost Thursday when Kounalakis is expected to announce an endorsement from Clinton, who says she wants to help her friend “break California’s glass ceiling.”
“Eleni has proven to be a fierce leader,” Clinton said in a statement lauding Kounalakis on education, the economy and abortion access. “That’s the California way, and in 2026, that will be the Eleni Kounalakis way.”
With Gov. Gavin Newsom termed out of office after 2026, the governor’s race is expected to draw a large field of contenders hoping to lead the nation’s largest state. Democrat Betty Yee, the former state controller, has said she plans to run. Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has said he is considering it.
But Kounalakis was the first to formally launch a gubernatorial campaign when she announced it last month. Now she is following up with high-profile endorsements that also include support from California’s former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, another barrier breaker. Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1992 became the first women elected to represent California in the Senate.
“Endorsements like that show that she’s got the traditional party luminaries who are women on her side,” said Kim Nalder, a political science professor at California State University, Sacramento. “Those are important endorsements.”
Although Kounalakis is unknown to many voters, Nalder said, endorsements from well-known Democrats such as Clinton and Boxer will help her build credibility with the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.
“The fact that this is happening relatively early shows that she’s probably making moves to try to box out other potential candidates,” Nalder said.
The connections between Kounalakis and Clinton go back decades. Kounalakis’ father, Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, was a major donor to President Clinton who attended a state dinner and stayed overnight at the White House in 1997.
Kounalakis helped raise money for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and then worked for her when Clinton was secretary of State and Kounalakis was ambassador to Hungary. In 2016, Kounalakis was a California co-chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign, helping raise money and advising on foreign policy.
“I could go all the way back to 1992 when Hillary Clinton first inspired me,” Kounalakis said Wednesday in an interview with The Times.
She recalled the flap that year when Clinton said she “could have stayed home and baked cookies” but instead pursued a legal career.
“Even though she had to apologize for the comment, for many years after, for a kid like me, I took it as permission to want to go out and do bigger things in the world,” Kounalakis said.
The inspiration she drew from Clinton developed over the years and became transformative after she lost the presidential race to Donald Trump.
“That catastrophic election impacted me as it did so many women,” Kounalakis said. “When Hillary stood up and said, ‘Women of America, go run for office,’ I was one of thousands of women, record numbers of women across the country, who stood up and ran.”
In 2018, Kounalakis became the first woman elected lieutenant governor in California. It’s a low-profile position but she has used it, in part, to advance women’s issues. She played a big role in the campaign for Proposition 1 last year to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and wore suffragette white when she became the first woman in California history to sign a bill into law while Newsom was traveling out of state.