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Former ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis will become California’s first woman elected lieutenant governor, charging to victory over state Sen. Ed Hernandez in a race that pitted her campaign cash and diplomatic resume against his labor connections and legislative experience.
The highest ranking among a record-setting three women to be elected Tuesday to California constitutional offices, Kounalakis will join Controller Betty Yee and newly elected Treasurer Fiona Ma as one of the state’s top government officials. Like U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, all were elected statewide.
“We ran a people-powered campaign driven by a positive message, a powerful platform, and joyful volunteers & staff,” Kounalakis tweeted Wednesday, after spending election night with supporters at a party hosted by Emerge America, which trains women to run for office as Democrats. “We have made history, and I am so proud of what we will accomplish together.”
She led Hernandez with 56 percent of the vote to his 43 as the final precinct results came in Wednesday, in an election year that featured a wave of female candidates galvanized by the #MeToo sexual harassment scandals and the resistance to President Donald Trump.
Both Democrats, Kounalakis and Hernandez came from contrasting backgrounds but struggled to differentiate themselves on the issues. The lieutenant governor’s few official duties include serving on the governing boards for the University of California and California State University, as well as the State Lands Commission and the Commission for Economic Development.
But the position can also serve as a gateway to higher office, as it did for current lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, who handily beat Republican John Cox in this year’s gubernatorial race.
Despite never having held elected office, Kounalakis—a longtime Democratic Party volunteer—won the endorsement of high-profile Democrats including former President Barack Obama and Senator Kamala Harris. In a race that saw $26 million in donations pour in, she raised far more than her opponent, much of it from her own wealth and that of her father, Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos.
Her pitch to voters, however, underscored her background as the child of a Greek immigrant, the first in her family to graduate from college, as she argued that her family’s rags-to-riches story helped her relate to average Californians.
“We were surrounded by fields and swam in the irrigation canals…and had a very rural kind of experience,” Kounalakis told CALmatters of her Sacramento County upbringing.
She has pledged to make higher education her top priority, oppose tuition increases at the state’s public universities and boost financial aid for poor and middle-class students. She also said she’d draw on her experience running her family’s company, AKT Development, to help solve the state’s housing crisis—including ensuring universities are not overcharging students for housing. And she promised to fight offshore drilling on the lands commission.
Hernandez, who has served in the Legislature since 2006, also stressed college affordability on the campaign trail. He said he hoped to increase the budget and profile of the lieutenant governor’s office, using it as a bully pulpit to push for universal health coverage.
An optometrist from Azusa, he built a reputation as a health care advocate in the Legislature, authoring a law forcing drug companies to disclose information about their pricing. He tried and failed to overturn California’s Proposition 209, which bans public universities from considering race in admissions and hiring.
The California Labor Federation backed Hernandez, who is serving his final year in the Senate due to term limits, and both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times endorsed him.
“Though this was not the outcome we hoped for, I congratulate my opponent and know she will work hard to create a better California for all of us,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Kounalakis’ victory came during an election year many dubbed The Year of the Woman, which saw Americans elect the youngest congresswoman in the country’s history along with the first Native American and Muslim congresswomen.
She emphasized her identity as a female candidate while campaigning, saying she was first inspired to become involved in politics while watching another Democratic woman, Geraldine Ferraro, run for vice president in 1984. She touted her support from the National Organization for Women and NARAL, and in interviews joked about the “power of the ponytail,” her signature hairstyle.
With women making up a majority of the state’s registered Democrats, Kounalakis’ gender gave her a built-in advantage in the Dem-on-Dem race, said Mark DiCamillo, director of U.C. Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies poll. “It’s not a race that got a huge amount of attention,” he said. “[Voters] are looking for cues and the most obvious cue where you’re going in to vote is ‘That’s a woman, and that’s a man.’ “
Mona Pasquil previously served as acting lieutenant governor, the first woman to temporarily fill the post, after John Garamendi was elected to Congress in 2009.