By Joe Garofoli /

The lieutenant governor’s position is so disrespected in California that its current occupant famously said California should “get rid of the position” if it wasn’t made more effective.

That isn’t happening. In fact, just the opposite is unfolding. The job mocked as “Lite Gov” in Sacramento has become downright politically sexy.

Two former ambassadors are running for the seat, as are a veteran state senator, a former Richmond mayor, a San Jose State University professor and a wealthy Los Angeles businessman — who has spent $2 million of his own money on the race and won the state Republican Party endorsement, even though he hasn’t attended a single candidates forum.

The lure of being one really long step from leading the world’s fifth-largest economy has inspired the June 5 primary candidates to collectively raise more than $10 million, and counting — far more than the $7.6 million that candidates raised for the entire election cycle the last time the seat was open in 2010, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

That was the year Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was elected to the first of his two terms. Two years later, he told The Chronicle that his job as currently structured should be “dissolved” and that the governor and lieutenant governor should run the state as a team. Newsom, who now wants to be governor, has been quiet about that idea lately.

His would-be successors are spending all that money on an office that has an annual budget of $1.5 million, a staff of seven and little cachet. Other than checking in daily on the governor’s health, the lieutenant governor serves on the University of California Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees, the State Lands Commission and the state Commission for Economic Development. He or she can also break ties in the state Senate as its president.

The top two finishers in the primary will advance to the November general election.

Millions of dollars are flowing into the race from outside groups, the largest of which is led by the California Medical Association. It is primarily funded by more than $4 million from Angelo Tsakopoulos, a Sacramento housing developer who is the father of Democratic candidate and former U.S. ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis.

With all these checks being cut, it isn’t surprising that money — specifically, who is funding whom — has become a focus of the race, particularly since the top three Democrats and one independent candidate agree broadly on most policy questions.

“Most dads might think about buying their daughter a pony. In this case, a dad wants to buy his daughter an executive seat,” said Gayle McLaughlin, the former Green Party mayor of Richmond who is running as a nonpartisan candidate and is not accepting corporate contributions.

McLaughlin is focusing on removing the influence of corporations in politics, saying, “As long as corporations have control of elected officials, nothing will change.”

She advocates tuition-free public universities and would pay for it by instituting a tax on millionaire residents and creating an oil severance tax on petroleum extracted in California.

Kounalakis shot back that “it really bothers me that Gayle would make this analogy,” referring to the pony line. “I’m a 52-year-old woman. Another woman should not try to paint their competitors as little girls. It’s not right.”

The San Francisco resident pointed out that her father immigrated to the U.S. as a young man from Greece to work as a farmworker. He built a development empire and became a politically influential donor in California long before his daughter ran for office.

“He’s so proud of me,” said Kounalakis, who also has donated $2.5 million of her own money to her campaign. “He wants me to win so I can help other families to walk the pathway of the American dream the same way.”

Kounalakis promised never to vote to raise tuition for University of California or California State University students. She also said she would turn the State Lands Commission into a weapon for opponents of President Trump, particularly when it comes to the administration’s proposals to loosen restrictions on coastal oil drilling. “This isn’t a sleepy little commission anymore with Donald Trump in the White House,” Kounalakis said.

Democratic candidate Jeff Bleich, a Piedmont attorney whom President Barack Obama appointed to be ambassador to Australia, said Kounalakis’ campaign is making it hard for Democrats “to have the moral authority to fight the influence of this kind of money in politics. We have to elect candidates who aren’t funded this way.”

Bleich proposes giving state university students a “debt-free” education in exchange for performing public service in California after they graduate.

Other candidates pointed out that Bleich has received more than $300,000 of his $2 million in campaign cash from other attorneys. Rival candidate state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina (Los Angeles County), said, “What does that mean he will do for attorneys should he get elected?”

Bleich countered that Hernandez has been one of the Legislature’s largest recipients of money from pharmaceutical companies since 2011. “At the very least,” Bleich said, “people would wonder about the motivations for his positions.”

“I don’t have the luxury of self-funding my own campaign,” responded Hernandez, a practicing optometrist who has raised $2.8 million. He noted that he was a co-author of a law last year that requires drug companies to disclose how they price their products.

If elected, Hernandez said, “I would engage in health care like no lieutenant governor ever has” — focusing particularly on the 3 million Californians who lack coverage.

One of the few Republican in the race is Cole Harris,who parachuted in just before the March filing deadline. The Los Angeles import-export businessman hasn’t shown up at a candidates forum or filed a statement for the state voters guide, but he is spending about $250,000 a week on TV ads, saying, “I’ve got to build name ID here.

“You tell me how I’m supposed to do this. I didn’t have the luxury of announcing two years ago,” Harris said. He added that he could “put in another $10 (million) if I wanted to.”

Harris said he would focus on economic development and tap into the private sector for advice. “Not to drag on anybody here, but the best and the brightest don’t usually go into government,” he said.

Lydia Ortega, a Republican and professor of economics at San Jose State University, touts that she is not a politician. She wants to lower taxes and improve the state’s university system.

Ortega is the only candidate whom no one is targeting for her spending. That’s because she had $25,059 cash on hand as of April 21 — about as much as the California Medical Association-led outside group spent this month on billboards supporting Kounalakis.

This article was published 5/15/2018 on San Francisco Chronicle.