On a delightfully rainy Monday, no one is recognizing the governor as she enjoys a hot tea at a coffee shop in downtown Sacramento.
That’s because today, California’s acting governor is Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has traveled to New York City for Climate Week, which means Kounalakis is in charge of the state for four days in his absence.
The lieutenant governorship may be elusive to the average voter, but there is good reason to pay attention to Kounalakis: Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Gov. Gray Davis served as lieutenant governor before being elected to the top spot.
I sat down with Kounalakis, a Democrat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Obama, to talk about her reelection campaign, her relationship with Newsom and her gubernatorial aspirations.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So what’s it like to be governor right now?
I believe [Newsom] has a lot of bills on his desk, but he has plenty of time to sign them when he gets back. So it isn’t as though there’s anything that needs to be done in that space. I’m sure he would appreciate it if I didn’t go dip my pen in ink and start signing away.
During COVID, for 2½ years, he barely left the state. He really had to be here most of the time. So in some ways, it’s kind of a new experience.
When he could not lead the delegation to Glasgow, Scotland, and asked me to step in, within 24 hours of the call, I was on a plane. I participated in all of the panel discussions and all the events that he was scheduled to participate in. And people asked me, “How could you prepare that?” The fact is, we’re working together all the time, on the portfolio of combating climate change, and in my capacity as a representative for international affairs, so it took very little preparation to be able to step in and do that work.
It’s interesting, you know, the California Constitution does provide that when the governor is out of state, all the powers fall to the lieutenant governor. But the governor and I have a very positive working relationship. I would argue it’s one of the most positive in generations.
As lieutenant governor, Newsom himself lamented the role as not having much power, and having a lackluster relationship with then-Gov. Jerry Brown. What makes your relationship work?
I can’t comment on the past in any detail, but we work together very well. No. 1, we both respect that these are two separate constitutional offices. People voted for me separately from the governor, and I have a duty to the electorate to prioritize and advance the policies that I was elected on.
At the same time, the governor and I agree on a whole host of things. So to be able to collaborate and advance the interests of Californians in any of the ways where we agree, I think it’s incumbent upon both of us to do that. And we have, I think, with great success.
The governor and I have known each other. I’ve been a constituent of his for almost 20 years because I lived in San Francisco, and he was elected mayor. And then I was his appointee to a San Francisco city commission. So it goes back a long way. I respect him, I respect the challenges that he has. And I think that has really been the foundation for our relationship. I always knew that Gavin Newsom would be governor of the state of California but not in a million years could I have ever imagined that I would be his lieutenant.
As lieutenant governor you sit on a slew of boards related to the state’s colleges, land use, water and economic development. What do you view as the most influential or important role you have now?
I think I’m the first lieutenant governor since Leo McCarthy [1983-1995] who has actually had a legislative agenda. We have a whole list every cycle of bills that we either sponsor, co-sponsor or support. We have a process for determining what we’re going to get behind and how early we’re going to get interested, and it’s evolved. The first year was a couple of bills, and then increasingly more and more that fit into this space. Things that are really central to my day-to-day work are environmental issues, higher education, equity and issues related to women.
Before I was elected, I was told that the lieutenant governor’s office is a bully pulpit. What we’ve tried to do is restore the functionality of the office, which we have. And now to try to strategically choose the kinds of issues that we can use the bully pulpit to be able to help.
Will you run for governor? And when?
I’m acting governor of California right now. The experience that I am getting in this job is the kind of experience that does prepare you to be governor.
We have never had a woman governor of the state of California. If I don’t try to organize a campaign to be the first, who will?
I’m on the ballot in November. I hope I will be reelected. And I hope that I will continue to show the people of California that if they want a woman governor, that four years from now, that I’m a good candidate for that.
California politics lightning round
— Newsom signed a bill making California the seventh state in the U.S. that does not allow employers to discriminate against workers who smoke weed “off the job and away from the workplace.”
— Tom Girardi gave millions to Democratic politicians. Was the money stolen from clients?
— In the nonpartisan race for California superintendent of public instruction, it’s all politics.
— Takeaways from the L.A. mayoral debate between Karen Bass and Rick Caruso.