Eleni Kounalakis got a lot of grief in March after her father, Sacramento real estate developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, made a $2 million-plus donation to lift her bid to be California’s next lieutenant governor.
“If you take money from…one commercial developer in your family,” quipped one of her now-vanquished primary challengers, Jeff Bleich, “that’s going to affect how you operate on the (State Lands Commission) with respect to questions involving housing development.”
That’s certainly one way to look at it.
Another, far more practical way is to see that Kounalakis is uniquely qualified to use the bully pulpit of lieutenant governor — a primarily ceremonial position with no real authority — to effectively tackle two of California’s most pressing problems: housing and homelessness. If she’s elected on Nov. 6, the next governor should appoint her as the state’s point person on those issues.
These are far from the only duties of a lieutenant governor, of course. But together, they are a big reason we recommend Kounalakis over her challenger, longtime state Sen. Ed Hernandez.
Before becoming U.S. ambassador to Hungary under the Obama administration and chairwoman of the California Advisory Council for International Trade and Investment under the Brown administration, Kounalakis spent close to two decades working at her family’s company, AKT Development. She served most recently as its president.
Known for building homes throughout the Sacramento region, AKT Development and Kounalakis have spent years navigating the governmental red tape and lawsuits from overzealous NIMBYs that tend to slow and block construction. Kounalakis could be instrumental in bringing developers into the housing debate in a meaningful way and helping come up with real solutions.
Hernandez, who was first elected to the state Assembly in 2006 and is terming out of the state Senate this year, doesn’t even list housing or homelessness among his top issues on his campaign website.
The job of lieutenant governor includes seats on the University of California board of regents and California State University board of trustees. It’s clear that, if elected, Hernandez plans to focus much of his energy there, as well as on improving K-12 education and health care.
At a forum last week on higher education, Hernandez spoke passionately about his goals for reducing the barriers to graduation. That includes lowering tuition costs, making it easier for poor students from communities of color to go to college in the first place, ensuring that what they learn is fit for a 21st century economy and doing a better job of tackling mental health care and substance abuse issues on campus.
As an optometrist who has spent much of career serving low-income patients in the San Gabriel Valley and who served as chairman of the Senate Health Committee, that makes sense.
Kounalakis, when she spoke, said many of the same things. But she also talked about how the high cost of housing is harming students, recounting the story of a woman she met in Sonora, who started crying as she spoke about her grandson, who had become homeless after he went away to college.
It’s just one example of how the affordable housing crisis is beginning to infect every area of public policy in California, including many of her other areas of focus, such as the economy, universal health care and affordable child care.
If elected, Kounalakis said she intends “to be very, very wonky on the housing question” because “it is driving Californians into poverty, into the streets.”
She has vowed to lead the charge on getting the UCs and CSUs to build more on-campus housing, but in a way that’s affordable because, right now, the rates being charged for dormitory housing is being used to fill budget gaps and its driving students into poverty.
Indeed, the state’s poverty rate is the highest in the nation at 19 percent, largely because of the high cost of living, according to the Census Bureau. California, in spite of its roaring economy, also has the dubious distinction of being the national leader in homelessness.
To tackle this, both gubernatorial candidates have vowed to ramp up building. Republican John Cox, a developer by trade, but whose platform is paper thin, wants to eliminate fees and cut regulations that make construction slower and more expensive.
Democrat Gavin Newsom, whom we are endorsing, has vowed to lead an effort to build 3.5 million new homes by 2025, and strengthen housing assistance programs, add to the state’s paltry stock of permanent supportive housing and beef up tenant protections, although he remains cool to rent control. He wants to create a new cabinet position, a Secretary of Homelessness.
California doesn’t need a new cabinet position. The lieutenant governor already has a seat on the influential State Lands Commission, which makes decisions on land use and conservation. That’s a jumping off point for addressing housing and homelessness crises.
Kounalakis can push California forward on these issues, and that’s why she gets our endorsement.