The race for California lieutenant governor, a potential political launching pad

Angela Underwood Jacobs and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.
Angela Underwood Jacobs, left, and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

Democratic incumbent Eleni Kounalakis and Republican Lancaster official Angela Underwood Jacobs are competing for the position of California lieutenant governor — an under-the-radar office that has been a steppingstone for a few governors past.

California’s lieutenant governor steps in whenever the governor is out of state and serves as president of the state Senate, casting a legislative vote in the case of a tie.

The lieutenant governor also serves as a voting member on California’s higher education boards, which oversee the state’s colleges, and on commissions regarding land and water use and economic development.

Gov. Gavin Newsom himself served as lieutenant governor before taking the top spot, as did former Gov. Gray Davis.


Kounalakis’ campaign for reelection includes a focus on climate justice and women’s rights, while Underwood Jacobs is pushing for lower taxes and improving public safety as part of her platform.

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As lieutenant governor, Kounalakis — who has plans to run for governor — became the first woman in California history to sign a bill into law and filled in for Newsom at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The legislation she signed as acting governor extended a law preventing some renters from being evicted.

In an interview with The Times, Kounalakis — who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Obama — said her work on economic interests abroad as California’s top international representative is among her biggest accomplishments in her first term.

“Welcoming the queen of the Netherlands here, welcoming countless international delegations, spending three hours with the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky when the governor was not available to go ... that space is something that makes me very proud,” she said.

As lieutenant governor, Kounalakis has sponsored legislation to require the state to collect data on student housing insecurity; guarantee abortion rights in California; and ensure that California provides transgender youths refuge from states that ban medical care.


If reelected in November, Kounalakis said she would continue to sponsor legislation and work behind the scenes to get policies she believes in over any political hurdles, including a push to make college in California “more accessible and more affordable.”

“I think I’m the first lieutenant governor since Leo McCarthy [1983-95] 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,” she said. “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.”

The odds are in Kounalakis’ favor: She has outraised Underwood Jacobs by more than $4.6 million; led in the primary with 53% of the vote; and has the endorsement of top Democratic officials in a state where a Republican has not been elected statewide since 2006.

Though Kounalakis has been in lockstep with Newsom, calling their partnership “one of the most positive in generations,” Underwood Jacobs has criticized him as part of her election campaign, warning against a “one-party rule in Sacramento.”

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In a survey administered by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Underwood Jacobs said that the lieutenant governor should act as a counter to the governor.

“Homelessness is out of control, housing is unaffordable, and we’re watching companies and families leave this state due to the lack of affordability,” she said. “I would make sure that other perspectives are being heard in Sacramento outside of the normal single-party talking points and special interests. I encourage voters to choose change this November and send California’s first African American woman to the office of the lieutenant governor.”

Underwood Jacobs, a deputy mayor for the Los Angeles County city of Lancaster, where she has also served as a City Council member, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with The Times.

If elected, Underwood Jacobs has pledged to reform the state’s Employment Development Department, give more support to police and be “tough on criminals who break the law,” according to her website.

On homelessness solutions, she said, “providing help to those in need is necessary; however, if individuals are unwilling to take the help offered, we cannot let them ruin parks, sensitive ecological areas, and public areas like streets.”

Election day is Nov. 8.