SAN FRANCISCO, CA – This year was a groundbreaking year for women. From a record number of women running for office across the United States, breaking the glass ceiling, and the #MeToo movement bringing serious issues to light, to a story that was followed closely by The National Herald’s readers online and in our print edition, the historic campaign for Lieutenant Governor of California run by former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis.
Surprisingly, no woman had ever been elected to the position in the state before Amb. Kounalakis won in the November 6 elections. The position is a significant one since California is a huge state, the largest in the nation by population and third largest by area, with a thriving economy. As she prepares to take office on January 7 when she will be inaugurated as the first woman Lt. Governor of California, Kounalakis took time out of her busy schedule to speak with TNH about her new position, her family and Greek heritage, and being selected as TNH’s Woman of the Year.
When asked how she is doing during the transition process, she told TNH that, “I’m well, it’s a lot of work to do with the transition, but everything is going great.”
About the recent fires that ravaged parts of California, Kounalakis said, “We are a state of 40 million people, four times the size of Greece almost, population-wise, so there’s always something happening, but our economy is very strong and by and large we have quite a bit of political harmony here, you don’t have the sort of gridlock you see in other parts of the country, so, in light of the devastating, historic fires that we’ve experienced, people are getting to work to deal with the outcome of the tragedy and prepare to minimize those kinds of fires in the future.”
Married to a Greek-American journalist, author and scholar Markos Kounalakis, with whom she has two teenaged sons, Neo and Eon, Eleni Kounalakis is the daughter of Angelo Tsakopoulos, a prominent real estate developer and founder and owner of AKT Development. 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 an 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.”
Following her victory, Lt. Governor-elect Kounalakis released the following statement to her supporters: “Thank you. This campaign was driven by one powerful principle – listening to voters across California and pledging to bring your stories, and your priorities, to Sacramento.
“As California’s Lt. Governor, I will fight hard every single day to build an economy that works better for everyone. I will fight to protect our environment for future generations, and to make public higher education affordable, so that more families can walk the same pathway of the American Dream as I have.
“Together, truly, we did it. Now, let’s get to work building a better, stronger California,” the statement concluded and was signed, “In gratitude, Eleni.”
Kounalakis also spoke to TNH about the issues of concern for Californians and all Americans, including education and healthcare. She noted that “the office of the Lt. Governor is structured to have focus on public higher education, environmental issues, and economic development… the Lt. Governor also steps in when the Governor is out of state or in case of an emergency. Public higher education and environmental issues are particularly important. For public higher education, starting day one I’ll be a member of the University of California (UC) Board of Regents, the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees and then for environmental issues I’ll be the chair of the state of California lands commission.”
On the issue of education, she said, “Most Greek-Americans know the importance of education as the great equalizer in this country and the pathway to economic opportunity.”
“Health care is important everywhere because President Obama tried to tackle this at the federal level. We know there are many who have tried to stop the Affordable Care Act and states including California are struggling as a result. I think there’s a great deal of hope now that the Democrats have the House of Representatives that they may seek fixes to the Affordable Care Act, but in the meantime here in California there is a lot of support for reforms that can help more families and can bring down the cost of healthcare,” Kounalakis said.
Eleni Kounalakis graduated from Dartmouth College in 1989, and earned her MBA from University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 1992. She also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the American College of Greece.
In 1992, she started her career as a staff member of the California Democratic Party in Sacramento and worked in the historic election, which sent two women to the U.S. Senate and turned California blue.
Kounalakis then joined her family business, AKT Development, one of California’s most respected housing development firms. Over the next 18 years, she worked her way up from project manager to president. Her work delivering housing for middle-class families in the Sacramento region earned her recognition as one of Sacramento’s most prominent businesswomen.
In 2010, Kounalakis was appointed by President Barack Obama as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and served side-by-side with President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton promoting democracy.
She is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Madam Ambassador, Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties and Democracy in Budapest, published in 2015 by The New Press.
During her 18 years in the housing industry, Ambassador Kounalakis continued to work as a democratic activist, working on the campaigns of countless progressive candidates and initiatives. Passionate about early childhood development, she served on California’s First 5 Commission and the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism.
About being selected as TNH’s Woman of the Year, she said, “It’s a great honor. The Greek-American community was a very strong force behind my campaign but other immigrant groups as well who saw in my family’s journey, their own journey.”
Kounalakis concluded by saying, “Thank you, I’m very, very honored.”
We wish her all the best in her new position!
More information about Eleni Kounalakis is available online at: EleniforCA.com.
Madam Ambassador, her memoir of her time as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary is also available online and in bookstores.