With Bleich or Kounalakis, California’s next ‘lite gov’ would be a heavyweight

Lieutenant governors in California don’t have many official duties. They serve on boards overseeing higher education and state lands, lead a state economic council, break tied votes in the state Senate and step in if the governor has to leave town or can’t perform the duties of the office. For serious people, the limits chafe.

Nonetheless, this year’s race for “lite gov” has drawn nearly a dozen candidates to succeed Gavin Newsom, who spent eight years in that job, channeling his frustration into some useful policy discussions. In the top-two primary on June 5, we endorse two more candidates with strong ideas, Jeff Bleich and Eleni Kounalakis.

Though neither has held elected office, both have had serious careers and spent serious time in California’s political trenches. Either would serve with intelligence and depth.

Jeff Bleich photo
Jeff Bleich

Bleich, a Piedmont attorney specializing in public policy and regulation, is a former chairman of the California State University Board of Trustees and former president of the California State Bar. He was a special counsel to President Barack Obama and U.S. ambassador to Australia, a key trade post, and is endorsed by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and the Sierra Club.

Eleni Headshot (1)
Eleni Kounalakis

Sacramento native Kounalakis, who was president of her family’s real estate development company for more than a decade, was Obama’s ambassador to Hungary as its nascent democracy was imploding. She has served on the California First 5 Commission and the San Francisco Port Commission and led the California Advisory Council for International Trade and Investment. Her endorsements include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Equality California and NARAL Pro-Choice California. If elected, she would – in this #MeToo moment – be California’s first female lieutenant governor.

Her father, developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, has pumped nearly $5 million into an independent expenditure committee that was formed by the California Medical Association to support her against the frontrunner in the polls, state Sen. Ed Hernandez, an Azusa Democrat. An optometrist, Hernandez has clashed with doctors in his effort to expand scope of practice laws that would bring more business to optometrists, among others.

The money has been a mixed blessing for her, overshadowing her years of work in the party; she virtually tied for delegate support with the labor-backed Hernandez at the state Democratic convention.

Hernandez, who is terming out of the Senate, has more than a decade of legislative experience. The lieutenant governor’s job is certainly within his skill set and would be a soft landing. But Bleich’s thoughtful leadership style and Kounalakis’ business savvy would accomplish more.

The most viable Republican on the ballot, Pasadena businessman Cole Harris, hasn’t appeared at major candidate forums and said through a spokesman that he won’t speak to the press until after the primary. His campaign war chest consists mostly of a $2 million donation to himself. On his Facebook page, he says he supports President Donald Trump, border security and Proposition 13, and opposes single-payer health care and “goofy left-wing pie-in-the-sky ideas.” His website promises an “avant-garde” approach.

Two-term Richmond mayor and Chevron nemesis Gayle McLaughlin has a host of progressive plans if she is elected, including single-payer health care, free college, statewide rent control and a fracking ban. And she is the only candidate to have served as an elected executive. But her campaign appears mainly intended to give exposure to her movement.

Bleich and Kounalakis reflect the state’s political mainstream. As “lite gov,” either would be a heavyweight.

To see the Sacramento Bee editorial board’s endorsements for California governor, go to sacbee.com/endorsements at 5 a.m. Friday.

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