Los Angeles Politics

Why CA lieutenant governor’s early jump into governor’s race?

They’re starting to line up to run for governor to replace lame duck Gov. Gavin Newsom when his term expires after 2026. Yes, already.

The first in line Monday was Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, 57.

A few hours later, former state Controller Betty Yee, 65, said she plans to run too.

They’re Democrats, of course — the only political type who can be elected governor or U.S. senator in California these days.

If Kounalakis, Yee or another woman is elected, she’ll be California’s first female governor. There have been 40 governors over nearly 173 years, and we’ve elected only white males — in this, ironically, the most diverse state in the nation.

The next gubernatorial election won’t be held for three years. Why start running now?

It lays down a marker and dares rivals to jump in, perhaps before they’re ready. It’s an attempt to announce your presence to voters who have only a vague notion of who you are, if that. And it allows you to start organizing a campaign without being too cute by forming a so-called exploratory committee. Just shout it out truthfully: “I’m running.”

Most of all, it permits you to start raising the barrels of money it requires to run a successful race for governor in California, especially for candidates with low name recognition such as Kounalakis and Yee. The cost of living in California is exorbitant, and so is campaigning for major office in this far-flung, multifarious state.

Yee said she won’t officially enter the race until later in the year but wants to let everyone know she’ll be running.

Kounalakis is California’s first female lieutenant governor.

She enters the gubernatorial race with three substantial assets:

  • An impressive sounding title that includes the key word “governor” and implies a position more important than it really is.
  • A boatload of family money and access to a potent donor list that ensures she won’t run short in a campaign that will probably cost more than $100 million.
  • Expert knowledge and experience in home building, qualities that the state government very much needs to tackle the curse of unaffordable housing in urban California.

The lieutenant governor title is a huge asset in a gubernatorial race.
That said, only three sitting lieutenant governors have been elected California governor: Republican C.C. Young in 1926, Democrat Gray Davis in 1998 and Newsom in 2018. So there needs to be money, substance and some appeal behind the title.

“It was greatly helpful to Gray,” recalls Garry South, Davis’ former political strategist, referring to the lieutenant governor label.

“In focus groups, people couldn’t think of one single thing he’d done as lieutenant governor because they didn’t know,” South says. “But they’d comment, ‘He knows his way around because he’s second in command,’ or ‘He’s run the state when [Republican Gov. Pete] Wilson is out of state.’

“We’re sitting there rubbing our bellies, thinking, ‘This is great stuff.’”

Let’s be honest, the virtually powerless job of lieutenant governor shouldn’t even exist. It’s totally unneeded. As a gubernatorial backup, we could tap another elected state official who holds a genuinely important office, such as attorney general.

We have this archaic law that says a lieutenant governor takes over for a governor when he’s out of state. That harks back to the stagecoach or pokey train eras when a governor could be incommunicado for days or weeks. With Zoom and the smartphone, a governor these days can instantly act from anywhere in the world — just as a president can.

The lieutenant governor does sit on some important boards: the University of California Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees and the State Lands Commission, for example.

And Newsom has designated Kounalakis as the state’s International Affairs and Trade representative, using her foreign affairs experience as U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration.

But, frankly, I thought we’d hear more from Kounalakis after she was elected, given her energy, tenacity and feisty nature. She has been relatively quiet.

In December, I described her as “the most obscure lieutenant governor I’ve ever seen.”

By contrast, when Newsom was lieutenant governor, he was constantly promoting ideas, including his own economic growth plan for California. But that irritated Gov. Jerry Brown, who saw it as upstaging. Brown pretty much shut out Newsom. Kounalakis wanted to get along with the governor.

“There’s a different relationship between Gavin and Eleni,” says Peter Ragone, a Kounalakis campaign strategist who worked for Newsom when he was San Francisco mayor. “They’ve known each other for decades. Their relationship is much more collaborative.”

OK, but why hasn’t Kounalakis weighed in on how to build more housing in California and make it affordable?

“She has been able to do it on the QT,” Ragone says.

Fine, but we still haven’t seen much progress on home-building.

Her father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, who as a teen migrated from Greece by himself virtually penniless to California, became a highly successful, very wealthy housing developer around Sacramento. Kounalakis became president of the huge family company.

I’d think that knowledge of affordable home-building would find a strong appeal among California voters.

But there could be a large field of candidates.

Other potential contenders besides Yee include Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. Another long-shot possibility is San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Also, it’s conceivable if either Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank or Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine loses next year’s U.S. Senate race, they might run for governor.

Whatever. The early odds are that the 41st California governor won’t be another white male.

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Joseph Hernandez

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