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You’d never know Eleni Kounalakis was taking an oath of office for an afterthought of a job that has been occupied by men who generally become answers to political trivia questions.

As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, four other members of Congress and numerous legislators looked on, Gov. Gavin Newsom swore Kounalakis in as California’s 50th lieutenant governor—the first woman to be elected as governor in waiting.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm served as master of ceremonies for the event at a packed Sacramento Public Library auditorium that bears the name of Kounalakis’ father, developer Angelo Tsakopoulos.

No governor in recent memory had sworn in a lieutenant governor. In fact, most governors look upon lieutenant governors as upstarts to be kept at arm’s length. Governors and California’s independently elected lieutenant governors “don’t always see eye to eye,” Newsom noted.

“That’s about to change,” Newsom said.

Exactly what duties Newsom might cede to Kounalakis remain to determined. There was no promise.

As “lite guv,” Kounalakis’ duties—at least when Newsom is around—are limited to serving as a University of California regent; a California State University trustee; a member of the State Lands Commission, which has oversight over beaches and offshore oil drilling; and presiding over the hazily defined and sporadically funded California Commission for Economic Development.

She also will be acting governor when the governor leaves the state. Newsom quipped that she should not “start appointing judges,” a reference to Mike Curb, who was lieutenant governor when Jerry Brown was governor the first time and attempted to fill judicial openings.

Two of California’s four most recent governors—Gray Davis, who also attended her swearing-in, and Newsom—served as lieutenant governor. During his tenure and itchy with ambition, Newsom would joke about the job, repurposing the old witticism by another ex-lieutenant governor, John Kerry, that his post mainly required its occupant to “wake up every morning, pick up the paper, read the obituaries, and if the governor’s name doesn’t appear in there, go back to sleep.”

Once in 2013, when a mother and her son asked Newsom to pose with them for a photo, the boy asked him what a lieutenant governor does. “I ask myself that every day,” the guv lite replied though a Hollywood smile for the camera. 

But clearly Newsom made the most of the post, and over the years came to see it more generously. And Kounalakis, a longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser, campaigned hard for it, pumping $9 million of her own money into her campaign, besides an independent expenditure of more than $5 million by her father and other major donors.

“It ain’t such a bad job,” Newsom said on Monday.

Kounalakis, 52, was U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Barack Obama. She defeated Democratic state Sen. Ed Hernandez with 56.6 percent of the vote in November.

Kounalakis paid homage to her father, who arrived in Lodi from Greece at age 14 not speaking English, worked his way through Sacramento State College and became a major developer, a Democratic donor and a philanthropist. He sat in the front row as she took the oath.

Kounalakis vowed to block any attempts to expand offshore oil drilling, and work to expand access to public universities, calling it the “the best way to address our rapidly changing digital economy.” UC President Janet Napolitano was in the audience. 

In 1999, then. Gov. Davis took umbrage at one of the early actions of then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante’s staff suddenly lost preferred parking privileges, though Davis’ staff at the time called it mere coincidence.

“Pay no attention to the critics who say the job has no influence,” Davis said when asked what advice he would offer to Kounalakis.

Davis suggested that she use her position as a UC regent and CSU trustee to work at each campus to “help solve their problems.” Davis noted that the colleges are the most important economic engines in most cities where they’re located.

Importantly, students, faculty, administrators, university donors and alumni vote. That can be useful for, say, a future political campaign.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California is politically lopsided: Most of the people live in the south, but most of the political power is based in the north.

In recent years, the majority of politicians elected to statewide offices have been northern Californians—including the governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and both U.S. senators.

That could change after November’s election, because a striking number of statewide races this year pit a NorCal candidate against SoCal candidate, testing the political power and competing priorities of the Golden State’s two most populous regions.

But don’t count on it.

Northern California is likely to continue to dominate for reasons that largely boil down to this: People in the Bay Area just vote a lot more than those in Los Angeles. Economic and demographic changes overlap with voting trends, together situating California’s political nucleus in the heavily Democratic region in and around San Francisco.

“There is some built-in disadvantage for statewide candidates coming from the Los Angeles area,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The voter turnout and participation is disappointing in L.A., compared to the rest of the state.”

Even though Los Angeles is the state’s most-populous county, it has the lowest turnout rate for registered voters. Of the 58 counties, L.A.’s turnout was dead-last in the 2014 election and second-to-last in the June primary. Participation is so abysmal in Los Angeles County that voters there actually cast fewer ballots than voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—even though Los Angeles County has 1.2 million more people registered to vote.

Turnout is better in other populous SoCal counties such as Orange, San Diego and here in Riverside, but still not as strong as in the Bay Area.

“It’s a tale of two economies. Where you have a declining middle class, you have fewer voters and less civic participation,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting trends.

Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting. Per-capita income is much higher in the Bay Area, and jobs there are being created faster. That not only means people are more likely to vote; it also gives candidates from the region a stronger network for fundraising.

“As the economy has separated, so has our democracy,” Madrid said. “The nine-county Bay Area is becoming whiter, wealthier and older. And that’s creating a power base that is driving the political leadership and discourse for the rest of the state.”

Of course, voters don’t always choose the candidate from their own region, and a home address in the Bay Area is no guarantee of a candidate’s success. Other factors—such as politics, fundraising and the power of incumbency—also come into play.

But with seven of the nine statewide races on November’s ballot featuring a north-south matchup, the question now is whether voters will defy the recent trend.

In the race for governor, the dominance of Northern California was clear when the primary was over in June. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, beat out two fellow Democrats from Los Angeles to face Republican John Cox of San Diego on the November ballot. Newsom is far ahead in the polls and fundraising in a state where just one-quarter of voters are registered GOP.

Given their advantage in voter registration and fundraising, Democrats—no matter which end of the state they live in—are favored to win in statewide contests against Republicans. One test will be in the race for insurance commissioner, which features a Democratic legislator from Los Angeles against a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running with no party preference. Steve Poizner, who was insurance commissioner from 2006-2010, used to be a Republican but changed his registration to run this year. He splits his time between Silicon Valley and San Diego, and is facing state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, in this down-ticket race.

Because of California’s nonpartisan election system, some races feature two Democrats, making the outcomes harder to predict. Voters could choose a lieutenant governor who lives in San Francisco—real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis—or one who lives in Los Angeles, state Sen. Ed Hernandez. They could pick a statewide schools superintendent who hails from the Bay Area—Assemblyman Tony Thurmond—or one who helped run schools in Los Angeles, Marshall Tuck. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a former mayor of San Francisco—is fighting a challenge from the left from state Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“All else equal in terms of platform, and political leanings, if you have connections to the Bay Area, that is considered to be an advantage,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s both the voter strength in the Bay Area and the (fundraising) money that’s present in the Bay Area.”

The dynamic is different for legislative races—where the state is broken into districts with equal populations. Southern California’s large population means the region has many representatives in the Legislature, including the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly.

But because of the voting trends, many SoCal lawmakers are elected with fewer votes than their NorCal colleagues. Even though Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who lives in Los Angeles County, is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was elected by about 89,000 voters in 2016, while several Bay Area legislators got at least 130,000 votes.  

Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, said he’s hoping the energy this year over control of Congress will prompt more Southern Californians to vote. With several contested House races, the region is being blitzed by ads and volunteers reminding people an election is coming up.

“We do have a lot of those swing seats,” he said. “We’re hoping that is influential.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics