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Greek-American businesswoman eyes California office

XENIA KOUNALAKI

TAGS: Diaspora, Politics

Former US ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis finished first in a tight race to qualify for the November general election to replace Gavin Newsom as California’s lieutenant governor.

Kounalakis, a Democrat, won 23.4 percent of the vote, while State Senator Ed Hernandez, also a Democrat, came second with 20.8 percent. She agreed to an email interview with Kathimerini.

You took lead position in the California primaries and will go up against Ed Hernandez, a fellow Democrat, in the general elections. How do you differ from Hernandez?

I’m a businesswoman who helped create thousands of jobs, and a former US ambassador to Hungary. I will bring my experience in both the private sector, and government, to help build a stronger, better California. The lieutenant governor sits on the board of the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. I’ve pledged to never vote to raise in-state tuition at these institutions. I paid $2K per year to earn my MBA at UC Berkeley in 1992. The same program today costs $62K! I’m the only candidate to take this pledge, and I will fight to bring down the cost of higher education to California’s students. The pathway of the American dream for my family went through California’s public universities. I’m fighting to keep that pathway open for all California families.


As a woman, do you think you will have a tougher time being elected? Between Trump’s misogyny and the #MeToo movement, would you say it has become easier or more difficult for women to run for public office?

We are seeing a surge of interest by both women and men in voting for more qualified women. I have a good chance of becoming the first woman ever elected lieutenant governor of our state, and there is a great deal of enthusiasm around this as well.


We don’t have lieutenant governors in Greece, so could you briefly explain the duties of the office? Do you envision yourself serving under Gavin Newsom?

Every state in the US has a lieutenant governor, in case something happens to the governor. And in every state, the office is used differently. Here in California, the LG steps in when the governor is out of the state. The LG also sits on many boards – including UC and CSU, as I mentioned above, and the California State Lands Commission, California Commission for Economic Development, etc. Also, it’s often called a “Bully Pulpit” where the LG is able to advance policy that is especially needed at the time.


Do you have further political ambitions? Can you see yourself being a presidential candidate in, let’s say, 10 years’ time?

People often ask me this, because Gavin Newsom, our current lieutenant governor, is about to become governor. I really look forward to the opportunity to do this job to the greatest extent of my capability, and with a lot of energy. We are still five months from the election, and I’m going to continue to travel our beautiful state, speaking to voters, and campaigning on the issues.


I read your dismissive response to the National Rifle Association (NRA) on your Twitter account. How is it that the NRA remains so powerful and cannot be tamed even after such horrible attacks – the most recent being in Florida – and the nationwide student protests?

I truly believe the tide is starting to turn on this issue. It will take an uprising here among civil society to have the power to fight the NRA and advance gun safety laws. I think we’re on our way to achieving real change on this issue.


You told me your family is originally from Arcadia and your husband’s is from Crete. When was the last time you visited Greece?

My father, and my husband’s parents were all born and raised in Greece. Greece has always been an important place in our family’s life. Even though our family came from very humble origins – my yiayia and neither of my husband’s could read or write – we could not be prouder of our Greek ancestry. We try to come every year – and bring our children so that they can know their ethnic heritage. My last trip was in September of 2016, when I participated as a speaker at the New York Times Democracy Forum.


There were several reports of Greek Americans voting in large numbers for Trump. (And there are also those who admire him from afar here in Greece.) Is this something you’ve noticed in your local Greek-American community? Why do you think President Trump remains popular after all the scandals that have occurred during his first year in office?

I haven’t seen reports about that. But here in California voters rejected Donald Trump by a factor of 2 to 1, and he is truly not popular here.


Since you served as US ambassador in Budapest from 2010 to 2013, I am interested in where you think Hungary is headed under Viktor Orban. Do you believe liberal democracy in Europe is experiencing a crisis moment? If so, how do we reinvigorate its appeal?

The 21st century is bringing many changes – including skepticism about democracy. I do worry about it, and it’s part of the reason I’m running for office. The Greeks invented democracy, and, as Plato argued, the enemy of democracy is chaos. Around the world, people need to come together and recognize that self-government may be messy, and sometimes inefficient, but it is far better than the alternatives.

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