Column: Eleni Kounalakis wants to be California's next governor. Her wealth shouldn't decide the race

FILE – California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis speaks during a debate in Sacramento, Calif., on April 17, 2018, back when she was a candidate for the office. Kounalakis, a Democrat, announced on Monday, April 24, 2023, that she will run for governor in 2026. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater, File)
California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis stars in a statewide TV spot promoting abortion rights. It's also an advertisement for her 2026 gubernatorial bid. (Steve Yeater / Associated Press)

If you’re in California and happen to be near a TV, you might have seen a terribly concerned woman peering into the camera and discussing her support for abortion rights.

“You can call me Eleni,” she says.

That would Eleni Kounalakis, the state’s lieutenant governor.

Kounalakis would very much like to be California’s next governor, and her fretful appearance in the 30-second spot is very much a part of her strategy to make that happen in November 2026.

Legal abortion is not remotely at risk in California. A woman’s right to have an abortion is enshrined in the state’s Constitution and buttressed by the Democratic Party’s hegemonic hold on Sacramento.

But abortion is an uber-hot issue, Democrats’ hoped-for salvation against Republicans this November, and a topical way for someone like Kounalakis, with no particular role in the election, to wedge her way into the political conversation.

The Democrat is emulating a tactic successfully used by Govs. Gavin Newsom and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who piggybacked their gubernatorial ambitions on a campaign issue as a means of boosting their electoral prospects.

Kounalakis is also the latest in a long line of wealthy women and men with a mountain of cash at the ready as they pursue California’s top political job.

Most — Meg Whitman, Jane Harman, Al Checchi, to name a few — failed in grand fashion.

Read more: Column: Will abortion rights boost Biden and fellow Democrats? Arizona offers a test case

Kounalakis’ stated mission this campaign season is straightforward enough. She has formed a political action committee to mobilize “pro-choice” voters in the presidential battlegrounds of Arizona and Nevada and to boost Democrats in several competitive House races in California.

As part of that mission, she appears in a campaign-style ad filled with ghostly images of several right-wing avatars — Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Clarence Thomas — who give Democrats the night sweats.

It’s plainly a gubernatorial campaign spot, despite the focus on abortion rights.

“The advertisement is pitching Eleni,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired USC professor and longtime student of California politics.

Of course, it’s pretty much up to Kounalakis how she spends her money, or any campaign contributions she collects. If she wants to build a bonfire and burn $100 bills on the Capitol lawn — having, of course, received the necessary permit — bring on the marshmallows!

What’s not good or healthy is for Kounalakis to buy her way into the governor’s office, the way she used an outsized wallet to flatten opponents and win the lieutenant governorship in 2018.

At the time, Kounalakis’ main political credential was having given tons of money to Democratic candidates and political causes. Enough that it set her up for appointment by President Obama as U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

When Kounalakis turned her eye to elected office, oodles of cash again cleared her pathway.

She benefited greatly from the millions that her father — a wealthy Sacramento developer — showered on Kounalakis’ candidacy through a political action committee promoting her campaign. (There are legal limits on how much an individual can give to a candidate. Not so for political action committees.)

Kounalakis topped that off with several million more in personal spending.

That made her one of several affluent candidates who’ve procured down-ballot office in California — state controller, insurance commissioner, lieutenant governor — by sinking part of their wealth into their races.

“Nobody knows much about those candidates,” Jeffe noted, so it’s easy “to buy name recognition, to shape their image” in ways that are much more difficult in a contest for governor.

Since taking office, Kounalakis hasn’t exactly bowled Sacramento over, though she did win reelection in 2022. George Skelton, my columnizing colleague who has covered the capital for well over half a century, once described Kounalakis as “the most obscure lieutenant governor I've ever seen.”

Her campaign team says that view wrongly overlooks her many accomplishments. Maybe so. Kounalakis will have a year-plus to make her case to voters, once the presidential campaign ends and the focus turns to California’s open-seat race to succeed Newsom.

Read more: Column: More than 30 states have elected female governors. Will California finally join them?

Voters will be presented with an unusually large and varied field — and a chance to make political history of some sort.

Toni Atkins, the first woman to have led both the Assembly and state Senate, and former Controller Betty Yee are running alongside Kounalakis, giving Californians the opportunity to elect the state’s first female governor.

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta would be California’s first Filipino American governor if he runs and gets elected. State schools chief Tony Thurmond is bidding to become California’s first Black and Latino governor. Atkins would also be the state’s first openly LGBTQ+ governor.

Whoever wins the job should do so on merit, not because of their race or gender.

And certainly not owing to their family fortune.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.