Lt. Gov candidate Eleni Kounalakis’ priority: affordable housing and higher ed

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Eleni Kounalakis is running against fellow Democrat Ed Hernandez to be California’s next lieutenant governor. She was a real estate mogul and former U.S. ambassador to Hungary under Obama. She has never held elected office. But she says she’s ready.

On why California voters should trust her to be second in command

Kounalakis: I headed out across the state. I went to all 58 counties of California… Even though I haven’t been in elected office before… I served as a United States ambassador. I ran an embassy of almost 400 people in Budapest, Hungary. And I learned how to work within government in order to be able to serve our people.

And I also bring to the table a background in business. And frankly, I think having a business background is actually a really useful thing to bring into the public sphere, especially because California’s economy is growing. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world, but it isn’t actually benefiting all Californians right now.

What we’re seeing is that even though the economy has recovered from the recession, California families have not recovered from the recession. And there is a lot that government can do to help make the economy work better for people.

What does a lieutenant governor do?

What I really identified as the most important role is public higher education. The lieutenant governor sits on two of the three institutions of higher education in the state on their boards: the CSU Board and the UC Board.

…My view is that if the job is really used properly, most of your time is spent working on public higher education, and that’s really what I intend to do if I win.

Changing public higher education

The CSU and the UC account for about 750,000 students. And 2.1 million students are currently enrolled in community colleges. A very significant percentage of our state budget goes toward funding these institutions. Yet the three institutions don’t really communicate or connect or plan together. My view is that the lieutenant governor can be a coordinating element in all of this.

Secondly, we have real capacity issues in in our system right now. Last year alone, 23,000 students who had the qualifications to go to a CSU were turned away because there was no space. Not to mention the fact that the facilities are aging, and there is quite a bit of deferred maintenance. So what I will do is strongly advocate during budget battles for a greater allocation of the general fund to go to public higher education.

How her real estate background can help solve the state’s housing crisis

My focus is going to be on housing on college campuses because that’s a place where I’m going to have a vote… One of the things that I saw when I was out traveling the state is that there are students who, in order to be able to stay at public universities, are living in their cars, eating in the food banks, leaving for a semester or two until they can raise more funds to be able to go back.

And largely the challenge in funding their college education is less and less determined by an ability to pay tuition, and more and more determined by their ability to pay for their rent on college campuses. So what I want to look at is how we can actively work to deliver more affordable housing units on college campuses.

An LA Times investigation found that Gavin Newsom missed scores of University board meetings when he was lieutenant governor. Will she make every meeting?

I have two children. So I don’t like to say that I’m going to make every meeting. Having said that, it is absolutely my intention to be in every single one of these meetings, and not just to be attending the meetings, but also work with the staff of the lieutenant governor’s office between these meetings on the issues that are coming at the board.

Her relationship with Gavin Newsom  

I’ve been very open about this because it’s a matter of public record. I have been supporting him for a very long time. I think he’s really talented and very determined, certainly after eight years of being lieutenant governor. And from his very first day wanting to run for governor and running for governor — I think he’s really determined to get to work as soon as he gets the keys to the big office. And I hope I’ll be able — from the office of lieutenant governor — to have a really positive working relationship with him.

Will she run for governor?

Absolutely not. Look, I decided to run for lieutenant governor because I truly felt that after the 2016 election, anyone who thought they had something to offer should stand up and step forward. If I’m elected, it will be such an incredible privilege and honor to represent Californians in Sacramento. And I will go to work to try to solve some of the challenges that are facing us. And in this job, you have the opportunity to do that in public higher education and on environmental issues.