SACRAMENTO, CA – Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis took the oath of office on January 7 as California’s 50th Lieutenant Governor, the first woman elected to the post in state history.
The inauguration took place at the Tsakopoulos Library in downtown Sacramento before more than 700 guests. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Governor Gavin Newsom, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and labor leader Dolores Huerta all made remarks during the program.
“As your Lieutenant Governor and in my role as a UC Regent and CSU Trustee, I am committed to expanding access to affordable public higher education here in our state,” said Kounalakis in her first address “It’s wise, its smart and it is the best way to address our rapidly changing digital economy.
“We are a global community that inspires people everywhere. Students want to study here, innovators want to work here, and even as we confront our many challenges, world leaders flock to our state to try to understand the magic. The best version of America looks more and more, like California,” she said.
Before swearing in Kounalakis, Governor Gavin Newsom said it would be a “new day” in the partnership between the Governor and Lt. Governor’s office, saying he will call on Kounalakis to use her office in a “significant and meaningful way.”
Speaker Pelosi noted that “here in California, Eleni’s leadership will be vital to help the working class families” and as being part of the team of the “new generation” of leaders in the State Capitol with Governor Newsom.
Kounalakis, 52 is the daughter of Greek immigrant Angelos Tsakopoulos, the successful businessman and philanthropist who founded AKT Investments. The former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010 Kounalakis worked 18 years in the housing industry as president of AKT Development Corporation, and is a long-time Democratic activist, playing key roles in several recent presidential campaigns. In addition, Kounalakis served on the First 5 California Commission.
As Lieutenant Governor, Kounalakis will serve on the University of California Board of Regents and the California State University Board of Trustees as well as chair the Commission on Economic Development. She also will be a member of the State Lands Commission, the Ocean Protection Council, and the California Emergency Council, among several other posts. Kounalakis also will serve as President of the California State Senate.
Eleni Kounalakis graduated from Dartmouth College in 1989, and earned her MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 1992. She also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the American College of Greece. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, journalist Markos Kounalakis, and their two sons, Neo and Eon.
Kounalakis spoke with The National Herald following her election victory. She told TNH that the family’s roots are “outside of Tripoli, Rizes in Arcadia and my husband’s family is from Chania.”
Kounalakis said, “Like so many other Greek immigrants, my father came to the United States after the Second World War. He was a very young man, he was only 14 when he left Greece, and he made his way to California. He worked in the fields as a farmworker, he was given the opportunity to go to California State University Sacramento, got an education, he started a business. I grew up in a very vibrant Greek-American community, my mother is also Greek-American, her father was a Greek immigrant, and we were raised in a community of people who were extremely grateful to be living in this country, to be American, and who believed in working very hard, pursuing education, and that the combination of those things allowed us and others in the community to build better lives for our family.”
When asked about her family’s reaction to her election as Lt. Governor, Kounalakis said, “My parents are proud, my family is proud, they were a very important part of the campaign. Having a big family is a great asset when you’re running a campaign in a state this big, everyone did what they could, and everyone is very excited now that I’ll have the opportunity to serve in this capacity.”
Of her historic election, Kounalakis told TNH, “I just became the first woman ever elected Lt. Governor of California, so it is historic, broke a glass ceiling, and there is a real change in the conversation about issues affecting women and how to ensure that we achieve gender parity in leadership of all kinds.”