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Lieutenant governors don't have much to do. These California candidates could try to change that

Lieutenant governors don't have much to do. These California candidates could try to change that
Democrats Eleni Kounalakis, left, and Ed Hernandez are running to be the next lieutenant governor of California. (Associated Press)

Let’s be honest, what the job of lieutenant governor amounts to is a nice-sounding title and a possible steppingstone to the real governor’s office.

Other than that, it’s pretty much how FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, described his job: “Not worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Only Garner probably didn’t say “spit.”

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America needs a VP — someone who can quickly step in as commander in chief and leader of the free world. That is, assuming the country has such a global leader, which it doesn’t now.

But the lieutenant governor’s position should have been tossed in the dumpster long ago. As a gubernatorial backup, we could use another elected state official whose office truly is important. Like attorney general.

That’s never going to happen, however. Politicians like the office because they think it can be a launching pad for governor. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is about to prove that theory. Another Democrat, Gray Davis, likewise did 20 years ago.

Lieutenant governor can also provide a landing spot for termed-out legislators — like one of the current candidates, state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa). For politicians, the more offices to run for, the better.

A few years back, Newsom advocated amending the state Constitution to require the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a ticket, same as the president and vice president. That makes sense. They’d officially be a team. About half the states do that. But Newsom couldn’t find a legislator willing to carry the legislation.

One of the lieutenant governor’s duties is to take over for the real governor when he leaves the state. That may have been a bright idea back in the Gold Rush era when communication could take weeks. Today a governor can stay in contact with the Capitol from virtually anywhere on Earth.

The lieutenant governor does have some other modest duties: voting memberships on the UC Board of Regents, state university Board of Trustees and state Lands Commission, which regulates coastal waters, tidelands and navigable rivers.

There are two quality Democrats running for the job: Hernandez, 61, and Eleni Kounalakis, 52, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

Both are vowing, as others have previously, to be more than potted plants. They’ll try hard to be productive. All past lieutenant governors have failed because governors don’t like understudies stepping on their turf. Soon as they climb onto a soapbox, they’re yanked off it.

Soon after they took office, Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t appreciate Newsom accompanying Republican legislators to Texas to learn why the Lone Star state was outperforming California in attracting businesses and creating jobs. And Brown completely ignored the lieutenant governor’s sensible economic development plan, which Newsom should immediately resurrect if elected governor as expected.

After then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi produced a “white paper” critiquing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal, he got a call from the governor’s office. “Since you’re so interested in the budget, we’re going to cut yours by 67%,” the caller said. And so it was.

The lieutenant governor’s annual budget is currently a paltry $1.5 million, enough for seven staffers.

Hernandez says if elected, he’ll urge the new governor to restore the lieutenant governor’s full funding.

He tells of a chance meeting with Newsom after the June primary. Newsom had just stepped off a Capitol elevator and Hernandez was standing there.

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“To his credit, he gave me some time,” Hernandez says. “He said, ‘We’re going to have to do something about this icy relationship between the governor and lieutenant governor.’ I said, ‘I would love to work with you on healthcare.’ He didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no….

“My success [in the job] will depend on what he allows me to do.”

But technically, a governor isn’t the lieutenant governor’s boss. They’re elected separately.

Hernandez, an optometrist, has been chairman of the Senate Health Committee and won enactment of several significant bills. They’ve sought to make drug pricing more transparent, allow pharmacists to alter medications and administer vaccines, ban “junk” health insurance policies and increase the smoking age from 18 to 21.

He angered the California Medical Assn. by trying to pass legislation that would have allowed nurse practitioners to operate independently from physicians. The CMA was so upset it created an independent expenditure committee to support Kounalakis in the primary, using $5 million donated by her Sacramento land developer father, Angelo Tsakopoulos.

In all, Tsakopoulos and Kounalakis have spent around $10 million of the family’s money on her campaign. So what? Which is worse, using your own money or contributions from favor-seeking special interests?

Kounalakis and her father — a rags-to-riches Greek immigrant — have donated millions to hundreds of Democrats over the years. Her strong support of Hillary Clinton’s two presidential candidacies is how Kounalakis acquired her ambassadorship when Clinton became secretary of State. She has also been president of her father’s development company.

Kounalakis is feisty and hard-nosed. If anyone can carve out a meaningful role as lieutenant governor, it’s her. She wants to focus on higher education and swears she’ll never vote for a tuition increase.

She undoubtedly knows more about how to build affordable housing than anyone in the Capitol.

Kounalakis would be the first woman elected California lieutenant governor.

Whoever wins, he or she will be positioned on the steppingstone to the big job.

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