A woman in California’s top job — briefly

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, serving as governor while Gov. Newsom is out of the state, signed a law to extend eviction protections to renters. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

When the vacationing Gov. Gavin Newsom returned to California this week, it marked an end to a remarkable two-week period in the state’s history — the Golden State had been run by a woman.

That woman is Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, and she became the first woman in the state’s 171-year history to sign a bill into law — a remarkable fact, given the state’s track record in recent decades of electing women to high office, including constitutional offices, Congress and the U.S. Senate.

Four other states — Arizona, Alabama, Connecticut and New Mexico — have elected women governors from both major parties and one, Arizona, elected a woman governor to succeed a woman who served in office.  Currently, there are nine women serving as governors across the country, including New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was sworn in last August.

But it wasn’t quite routine in 1979 – 1983, when Lt. Gov. Mike Curb stepped in during the frequent absences of Gov. Jerry Brown

Kounalakis was in charge until Gov. Newsom and his family returned from a Spring Break vacation in Central and South America. The state constitution says the lieutenant governor takes over the top spot if the governor is disabled or out of the state. (The old joke in Sacramento is that when a lieutenant governor wakes up in the morning, he looks at the newspaper to make sure the governor is still alive, then goes back to sleep.)

Kounalakis is the state’s first female elected lieutenant governor and as such served as acting governor. She wasn’t the first woman to hold the lieutenant governor’s job, however: Mona Pasquil was appointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as acting lieutenant governor from November 2009 to April 2010, pending the confirmation of Abel Maldonado.

Kounalakis also wasn’t the first woman to serve as acting governor: Secretary of State March Fong Eu filled the position in 1976 when several constitutional officers were out of the state at the same time.

The temporary takeover is usually routine, with little disruption in state government. 

But it wasn’t quite routine in 1979 – 1983, when Lt. Gov. Mike Curb stepped in during the frequent absences of Gov. Jerry Brown, who was traveling out of state in another unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Here are just a few of the things that Curb — a boyish musical entrepreneur who wrote the ditty, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” — did during the time Brown was out campaigning: 

  • Served as acting governor more than 25 percent of the time during his first two years in office, roughly amounting to a year in the top job over his four-year term.
  • Made 431 appointments.
  • Signed more than 30 bills and proclamations.
  • Created the California Agriculture Commission, which among other things, helped protect agricultural workers from being sprayed while working.

Unlike Curb, Kounalakis was determined not to make waves.  As Newsom left the state, her office issued a statement to Capitol Weekly that read, in full:

 “Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis is honored to serve the people of California and to step into the role of acting governor in the Governor’s absence as set out in the California constitution.”

The who-gets-to-be-governor when both the governor and lieutenant governor are away is also outlined in state law in a sort of unofficial pecking order.

Next in line after the Lieutenant Governor is the Leader of the state Senate; then comes the Assembly speaker; after that, Attorney General; then State Treasurer; then Controller; then Superintendent of Public Instruction; then Insurance Commissioner; then the chair of the Board of Equalization.

Some of California’s lieutenant governors/temporary governors have had colorful, occasionally roller-coaster political careers apart from their time as acting governor. 

Democrat Mervyn Dymally, for instance, first served in the state Assembly, then the state Senate, then as Lieutenant Governor, then in the U. S. Congress and ended his political career back in the Assembly. Dymally, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, endured several corruption investigations over the years, but they never derailed his political career.

Ed Reinecke, lieutenant governor during the Reagan years, was tarred by the Watergate scandals and ultimately was convicted of perjury and sentenced to an 18-month suspended sentence.

Curb aside, California’s acting governors for the most part have refrained from cutting a wide swath.

Kounalakis’ major action action was signing into law a measure preventing renters from being evicted by June.

Editor’s Note: Corrects by deleting reference to Kounalakis being first woman to serve as California governor; offers note in 6th graf about March Fong Eu.


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