Lt. Gov. candidates spar over who’s cleaner in messy world of campaign finance

It turned into a lightning-round contest over who was more politically pure as five of the 11 candidates for lieutenant governor faced off today before the Sacramento Press Club.

Democrat Eleni Kounalakis called on fellow candidates for lieutenant governor to back campaign finance reform—even as opponents accused her of profiting off Big Oil and getting a multimillion-dollar boost from her wealthy developer father.

“You have a Republican in this race who just gave himself $2 million, so I hope everybody up here agrees we need campaign finance reform and across the country,” Kounalakis said of Republican candidate Cole Harris, who wasn’t there.

Then Democratic state Sen. Ed Hernandez asked Kounalakis, president of family firm AKT Development, about being a landlord to an oil trade association in Sacramento. Another Democratic challenger, Jeff Bleich, jabbed Kounalakis for potential personal conflicts if she were to become the state’s number-two officer—without actually naming her.

“If you take money from a Citizens United, Super PAC, dark money fund and you’re getting $3 million of your $4 million from…one commercial developer in your family, that’s going to affect how you operate on the (State Lands Commission) with respect to questions involving housing development,” said Bleich.

“One way to make politics clean again,” he added, “is to be clean ourselves.”

While the current lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, has described the job as largely ceremonial with no real authority, the position does come with seats on influential boards and commissions, including the University of California Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees and the lands commission, which makes land use and conservation decisions.

Responding to her opponents, Kounalakis said she established a fund to combat global warming from the money she receives from Western States Petroleum Association. But she noted how little she receives, pointing out the fund has collected between $8,000 and $9,000.

She did not respond to Bleich’s comment about her father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, who has given more than $2 million to an independent expenditure committee to support her.

She and other candidates were asked by independent candidate Gayle McLaughlin why they take money from corporations, developers and law firms even as voters express concern about special interest influences in campaigns.

“In my case,” Kounalakis said, “I’ve primarily taken contributions from individuals, many women who are excited about electing the first woman ever to be lieutenant governor of California, and many people who have been friends of mine supporting me for many years.”

Hernandez, who is supported by many labor unions including the California Teachers Association and the California Nurses Association, defended taking money from drug and oil companies.

“The reality is we have to take contributions,” said the optometrist representing the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. “I don’t have the luxury of being independently wealthy. But let me tell you what I do. All of the decisions that I’ve made are based on what I think are absolutely the right decisions for the people of California and in my district.”

Bleich, a former advisor to President Obama and former ambassador to Australia, said he doesn’t see a problem taking money from lawyers.

“Bob Mueller is a lawyer. Thank God for Bob Mueller,” Bleich said, referring to the U.S. Justice Department’s special counsel overseeing the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the presidential election. “And for the lawyers who spanned out at airports to protect immigrants during the immigration case. So yeah, I’m fine taking lawyer money.”

The lone Republican candidate at the debate, Lydia Ortega, said political cronyism was to blame, not corporations.

For the record, in the race thus far: Kounalakis has raised $2.5 million, and her developer father put $2.5 million into an independent campaign for her; Hernandez has raised $1.76 million; Bleich is just behind him with $1.6 million; and far behind are McLaughlin with $77,518 and Ortega with $27,000. Harris has given himself $2 million. 

When they weren’t clashing on campaign finance, the candidates tried to stand out on higher education, healthcare and environmental policy. They gave varying responses for their position on California’s bullet train with Hernandez calling for its completion and Kounalakis describing it as “boondoggle.”

Bleich, Kounalakis and McLaughlin called for additional police training and were supportive of a bill that would make it easier to prosecute officers in police shootings of unarmed individuals. But Hernandez, who is backed by police chiefs and other law enforcement groups, said he needed more time to review it.

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