Of all the statewide elected offices in California, none offers a thinner portfolio of duties than that of lieutenant governor. With a bare-bones staff and no mandate to do anything, the lieutenant governor’s main job is to wait in the wings as an understudy in case the actual governor becomes incapacitated or dies (or runs for president and wins), and to fill in when the governor is out of state. He or she also sits on the University of California Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees and the State Lands Commission. Beyond that, according to current Lt. Gov. (and current gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor’s office may have to field the occasional call from a frustrated constituent who didn’t get a call back from the governor.
Slight as all that may seem, the two candidates for this office who emerged from the state’s top-two primary say they would embrace it as a bully pulpit from which to speak out on healthcare, trade, education and other issues important in California. But while both are Democrats, they have traveled markedly different paths to this point.
Eleni Kounalakis, a prominent Democratic Party donor who’s never held elected office, is a former ambassador to Hungary appointed by President Obama (who included her in a slate of endorsements he made this year). Before that, Kounalakis led the Sacramento real estate development company started by her father, Angelo Tsakopoulos. A Greek immigrant who came here as a farmworker and built a fortune, Tsakopoulos contributed millions to an independent campaign that blanketed California televisions with ads for his daughter before the primary. The millions of dollars spent by Kounalakis and her father prompted critics to accuse her of trying to buy the office.
State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa), who grew up in La Puente, is an optometrist whose work with underserved communities and poor patients on Medi-Cal ultimately sparked his interest in state government. He was elected to the state Assembly in 2006 and then the California Senate in 2010, terming out this year. As chairman of the Senate Health Committee for eight years, he shepherded a number of tough, smart bills through the Legislature. These include laws prohibiting the sale of short-term ”junk” health insurance plans that do not comply with the Affordable Care Act and requiring drug makers to reveal more about their price-setting practices. The latter measure, which also requires drug-makers to give insurers 60 days’ notice before raising their prices beyond a certain threshold, was a major win for consumer advocates and a rare defeat for the formidable pharmaceutical lobby.
Both candidates would acquit themselves respectably in this peripheral job. But Hernandez gets our endorsement.
Kounalakis is smart and has done her homework on the state’s many issues. In addition to her family’s business, she has run a large embassy and now chairs the California Advisory Council for International Trade and Investment. But Hernandez has been a legislator of substance and persistence who’s taken on powerful special interests. Plus, he knows his way around state agencies and the Legislature, making him better prepared to step into the governor’s office in a crisis. That gives him an edge over Kounalakis in this race.
Hernandez says he is eager to continue working on healthcare issues if elected to the statewide post. Given the two gubernatorial candidates’ interest in that topic, it would be unrealistic to think the next governor will let Hernandez take the lead on it. But his expertise is valuable, and the next governor would be wise to avail himself of it.
No one knows the pitfalls of the lieutenant governor job better than Newsom. “The lieutenant governor is not the governor. I learned that the hard way,” Newsom says. To a great degree, the success of the next lieutenant governor will depend on whether the next governor puts his or her talents to use. Newsom, at least, knows what it’s like to spend years spinning his wheels.
Still, the state boards that Hernandez would sit on if he wins do weigh in on substantial matters. The little-known State Lands Commission, for example, could play a pivotal role in aggressively protecting public access to the coast and battling private property owners who stand in the way. Hernandez says he strongly supports the public’s right to access the California coast. If he becomes lieutenant governor, he should make sure he proves it.