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Politics & Policy

Eleni Kounalakis running for California governor. Will Kamala Harris join her?

Eleni Kounalakis, lieutenant governor of California, speaks during an election night party for Malia Cohen in San Francisco on Tuesday June 7, 2022. | Jana Ašenbrennerová for The Standard

Eleni Kounalakis’ announcement Monday that she is running to become California’s next governor—and the state’s first-ever woman governor—could be interpreted as a bit premature. The 2026 elections are still three years away, and Gov. Gavin Newsom just slicked back his hair for a second term.

But the lieutenant governor’s decision to launch a campaign now, which was first reported by Politico, draws a proverbial line in the political sandbox. 

The San Francisco resident—Kounalakis and her husband have a home in Pacific Heights—likely announced early for four key reasons: It will help raise her name ID among California voters, lock up endorsements, add to her reported $4.4 million campaign war chest and box out would-be challengers. And there are likely to be many challengers.

“I can tell you that she’s got women all over the state plugged in, and that's going to be the movement,” said Joe Cotchett, a prominent Bay Area attorney who is close friends with Kounalakis’s family after working for her father almost four decades ago.

Kounalakis is not the only woman with ambitions to lead California, however. Mere hours after her campaign announcement, former State Controller Betty Yee said she was throwing her hat into the ring, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Cotchett suggested other contenders could include Vice President Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

“I don't think that Kamala Harris is here enough to make the inroads, but that would be, in my opinion, the person that [Kounalakis] would contest with,” Cotchett said. “There are a lot of other people around, and this mayor of LA is phenomenal. Watch her.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass denounces anti-Semitism and hate crimes at a news conference in Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2023. | Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo

Where other women have tried and failed to win the top political office in the state, Kounalakis has some key advantages. 

Like past gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Kounalakis has business experience after working for her family’s housing development firm, AKT Development, where she rose to become president of the company. 

Unlike Whitman, who is a Republican not exactly known for her charisma, Kounalakis has a reputation for being likable, whether it be in the sphere of Sacramento state politics or back here in San Francisco.

“She talks to everyone. She gives hugs and handshakes,” said John Konstin, owner of John’s Grill, a San Francisco institution known for martini-fueled political lunches. “She’s very personable that way, and she can navigate herself very well.”

Kounalakis’s time as an ambassador to Hungary in the Obama administration gave her international experience and insights into the rise of autocracy, while her time as lieutenant governor has been more active than what is traditionally expected of the role.

“The lieutenant governor is not often that well known,” Cotchett said. “But I must say that Gavin has given her a tremendous wide rope, unlike what Jerry Brown did to Gavin. When you look back at those days, Jerry Brown didn't know how to spell ‘Gavin’ or who the hell he was—intentionally.”

Cotchett is kidding, of course. But where Brown might have bristled and sidelined the ambitious Newsom during the latter’s time as No. 2, Newsom has gone out of his way to draw attention to the importance of Kounalakis’s role.

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos has known Kounalakis since she was a young girl, and he’s been impressed from afar as she went from business school at UC Berkeley to taking over the family’s company and entering politics. 

“She has performed superbly in all of those roles, and I expect her to do the same as governor,” Agnos said. “She brings to politics something that has been missing the last 10 years, which is a kind of grace and gentility to go along with her brains and experience. It’s going to be a very attractive package [for voters]. The more you get to know her, the more you like her.”

The former mayor said Kounalakis has “the heart of a Peace Corps member and the eyes of a linebacker,” meaning she is willing to serve and can rely on her business and political acumen to know how to respond. Agnos called Kounalakis the obvious “frontrunner” at this early stage in the race, adding that he would be surprised if either Harris or Bass run for governor.

Kounalakis is expected to draw heavily on the Greek community’s support—“I bet you even Republicans will support her,” Konstin said half-jokingly—and cite the success story of her immigrant father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, who is a real estate legend in Sacramento.

“He just started buying little pieces of property,” Cotchett said. “He was a hustler and a hard worker, and she's got her father's DNA in her.”

Tsakopoulos’s net worth was estimated as high as $600 million almost two decades ago, and he was a key benefactor in Phil Angelides’s 2006 run for governor. This brings us to perhaps the biggest strength of a Kounalakis campaign: her ability to fundraise through traditional Democratic channels while also tapping into her family's immense wealth.

“She has a ton of money already, and she can self-fund, so I think she is a pretty daunting candidate for anyone thinking of getting in the race,” said Maggie Muir, a political consultant whose business partner ran Kounalakis’s lieutenant governor campaign. “They’re going to have to get in soon and start raising money to be competitive on a statewide level.”

Jumping into the race would be especially difficult for potential candidates like Harris and Bass, who have to maintain the appearance of continuing on in their current jobs for the time being. 

Gavin Newsom (left) and Kamala Harris laugh at a Time magazine breakfast in Denver on Aug. 26, 2008. | Photo by Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Harris is expected to join President Biden once again on next year’s reelection ticket, and polling suggests a presidential run on her own in 2028 would end poorly. Assuming she and Biden remain in the White House, Harris would still need a new job after another term. Anything beneath the role of governor would be seen as an embarrassing step down. 

Meanwhile, Bass just took over the role of mayor in Los Angeles, and turning her attention to a bigger job too soon could turn off the very voters she would need to win a statewide race. Neither Harris nor Bass will likely be able to join a statewide governor’s race until at least next year, and probably later. And by then, it might be too late.

“I'll tell you one thing about Eleni, she goes not 12 but 14 hours a day,” Cotchett said. “And she’s running hard.”

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com