California Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis: A Career in Public Service

In this episode, Lieutenant Governor of California Eleni Kounalakis talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about her accomplished career in public service.

FEATURING Eleni Kounalakis
March 12, 2021




In this episode, Lieutenant Governor of California Eleni Kounalakis talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about her accomplished career in public service.

About Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis:

Eleni Kounalakis is the first woman elected Lt. Governor of California. A native Californian, Kounalakis is California’s Representative for International Affairs and Trade, appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom by executive order. From 2010 to 2013, Kounalakis served as President Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary. Kounalakis was the first Greek-American woman – and at age 43 one of America’s youngest – to serve as U.S. Ambassador. Her highly acclaimed memoir, “Madam Ambassador, Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties and Democracy in Budapest” chronicles the onset of Hungary’s democratic backsliding.

Learn more about Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis via

Podcast Highlights:

“Honoring and respecting the fact that this beautiful country welcomed our family in and allows us to be part of our own governance was really the initial reason why I've had a lifetime of involvement.”

-       Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis on the topic of what inspired her to enter a career in public service.

“What was relayed to me was that more than 90% of U.S. foreign policy, in fact, does not change depending who the president is, even if it is a president from a different party.”

-       Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis on the topic of America's relationships with foreign countries drawing from her time as a U.S. Ambassador.

“About 1 out of 5 of all California jobs are associated with international trade, foreign direct investment, and tourism. So, when you think of the trade regime, it's determined by federal policy but it disproportionately affects us.”

-       Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis on the topic of California's role on the world stage regarding trade and the economy.


Eleni Kounalakis (Lieutenant Governor of California)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Alfredo Barcenas (UCR MPP Candidate, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

C Codaine

Commercial Links:

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

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  • California Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis: A Career in Public Service

    Introduction: Welcome to Policy Chats, the official podcast of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. I’m your host, Maddie Bunting. Join me and my classmates as we learn about potential policy solutions for today’s biggest societal challenges.


    Joining us today is Lieutenant Governor of California, Eleni Kounalakis. My fellow classmate, Alfredo Barcenas, and I chatted with her about her career in public service. 


    Maddie Bunting: The UCR School of Public Policy is absolutely honored that Eleni Kounalakis, California's first female Lieutenant Governor and former United States Ambassador to Hungary is joining us today for an episode of policy chats. Lieutenant Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us. 


    Eleni Kounalakis: Thank you so much, Madeleine and Alfredo, I'm delighted to be here with you. 


    Maddie Bunting: Wonderful. Well, you have had quite an exciting career as a public servant for both the State of California and as well at the federal level. Can you tell us what was it that brought you into politics? 


    Eleni Kounalakis: Well, Madeleine, like so many Californians, I'm the daughter of an immigrant. In fact, about half of Californians have at least one immigrant parent. So that part of my story is pretty common. But my dad came to the United States when he was just 14 as a refugee from Greece. He came to California to work as a farm worker, went to school, was encouraged by his community because he came here frankly by himself, and they encouraged him to go to college. And that really just changed the trajectory of his life and of course, the rest of our family. So I grew up in a household that was very well aware that we were part of something very special to be in America. And that anybody who wanted to get involved and organize could essentially have a voice in their own governance. And that is something that is very different in most places around the world as you guys know very well. So honoring and respecting that just the fact that this beautiful country welcomed our family in and allows us to be part of our own governance was really kind of the initial reason why I've had a lifetime of involvement. But over the years, Madeleine, it's really gone beyond that. The idea that the California Dream is getting more difficult for so many of us. I have really always stood for and fought for helping to ensure that that pathway stays open for others. And that's why I believe so strongly in public higher education in our state. But so many other elements of what makes California great and makes the California Dream available to those who work hard and play by the rules.


    Alfredo Barcenas: Thank you, Lieutenant Governor. I want to focus a little bit on international relations just to go off of Maddie’s introduction. You served as President Barack Obama's ambassador to the Republic of Hungary. How does one become an ambassador on behalf of the United States? And if you’re willing to share, did the President's administration reach out to you personally or did you seek out this role?


    Eleni Kounalakis: So Alfredo, it's a very good question because, believe it or not, there's a fair amount of recruiting that goes on out there in our universities for students to find that pathway into the Foreign Service. But in my school all the way out here in California, it maybe happens a little bit less than in other parts of the country where there's more of a tradition. So no one ever told me when I was in high school or in college for that matter, even though I was on the East Coast, nobody told me that, hey, if you like international affairs, if you like to travel, that there is this world that exists out there called diplomacy. So it's really important and something I always tried to do is to share that message that for students who are interested in public policy beyond our borders, and whether it's through climate change or human rights or international economic issues, that there is the pathway for you to become an American ambassador. And that is for most people going, taking the Foreign Service exam and joining the Foreign Service. And the way to do that is to go to the State Department website and you'll be able to find all the information you need of what that path is like. Now it is and has been for a long time our tradition that there is another way you can become a US ambassador. It is the less common way, and it is typically only applied to a handful of countries that meet certain tests, mostly allied countries, very frequently countries in the European Union. And essentially that's the political appointee pathway. It's sometimes controversial, but the bottom line is, most people agree that this part of the process enhances our foreign policy makeup. But typically what you hear is that people like me, political appointees tend to be among the best, but often, sometimes among the not so good of our foreign policy. And in the Obama administration, which I served in, President Obama was absolutely clear that the threshold for being a political appointee would be very, very high. And by enlarge, had great success with his political appointees. And the reason why I think this combination is so strong and by the way, I've now worked with diplomats from around the world. And most diplomatic corps are only made up of career diplomats. That by infusing people from everything, from think tanks, former elected officials and yes, the private sector into our foreign service, you actually can help keep the thinking fresh. So, my sense is that this is a tradition that will continue. But as I said at the beginning, for all the students watching, you want to be an ambassador, join the Foreign Service. And you can also read my book, which talks a great deal about this as well. Because as you can imagine, people ask me all the time, how do you become an ambassador? So when I wrote my book, I really wanted to make sure to answer that question. 


    Maddie Bunting: A bit of a fun question as well alongside with you just answered. I’m curious if candidates for Ambassador of the United States have a say in the country they hope to serve in or is it pre-assigned by the president? What was the process like for you?


    Eleni Kounalakis: So for me, I was being considered as a political appointee to a country that typically has a political appointee as ambassadors. So originally, I started going through the process to go to Singapore. And then along the way, the State Department and the White House redirected my candidacy to Europe. So it's not a particularly predictable process. Again, it's much different for career diplomats who rise up through the ranks in order to serve. For political appointees, it's like a match game where the President will say, Okay, I have some people who I would like to have represent me and represent the United States at the highest level. These are their qualifications. These are the countries where we typically send political appointees. Let's match them up and make sure that it works so there's no science to it. And maybe I can just add that at serving in that capacity as an American ambassador was an extraordinary privilege and experience for me. One that really has defined my life ever since. But to have started in the United States, grown up as the daughter of an immigrant. My grandmother back in Greece never even learned to read. And the President of the United States sent me abroad representing our country as his senior US government official was really not just an incredible honor, but also a testament to what our country honors. And I think that our diversity and our legacy of immigration, and what it's meant for us as a nation of immigrants is a very big part of that story. 


    Alfredo Barcenas: Thank you for sharing, Lieutenant Governor. So along your experience and what you went through as an ambassador, would you mind sharing and maybe some of your Diplomatic victories in your role as ambassador?


    Eleni Kounalakis: Sure. So I was the American Ambassador in Budapest, Hungary from 2010 to 2013, altogether about 3.5 years and for about eight months before that, nine months before that, working at the State Department to prepare to go. So it is a very, very long process. And during the years that I was there, some pretty exceptional things happened in Hungary. The prime minister who was elected with the two-thirds supermajority, Viktor Orban, really put into question the democratic institutions and ideals that were adopted by Hungary after the end of the Cold War, when Hungary regained its independence from the Soviet Union. So at the time that I was there, Viktor Orban put these principles of democracy into question and called for a different kind of democracy, which he termed majoritarian democracy. Which is the idea that if everybody votes for him, then he can do whatever he wants. So quite at odds with the Obama administration, but also at odds with American diplomatic tradition, which is around the world advocating not just for human rights, but for freedom of speech, for free and fair elections, for transparency for civil society to be able to organize and speak out for independent courts, for freedom of religion, for all kinds of things that really came under assault, oh and of course, the free media. It really came under assault during the time that it was there. So a big part of what we did in the Obama administration prioritized along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was to address these things, to push back, to raise awareness and to speak out as a friend, recognizing that Hungarian laws were for Hungarians to decide. But as we were promoting that one priority, we also were recognizing that we needed to keep the relationship, we needed to find ways to cooperate wherever we could. Hungary is a friend and an ally, and that was important as well. So the space where we found opportunity to cooperate, among others had to do with climate change. So Hungary has a tradition of science and technology. They did not need to be convinced about climate change. They knew. And in fact, soon after I left my post, my successor arrived. The Hungarian government became the first country to ratify the Paris Climate Accord. So this is important to be able to recognize, particularly with countries that are our NATO allies, as we stand up and we address areas of concern which we cannot back down from doing. We always want to find new areas of cooperation.


    Maddie Bunting: I did not know that. So thank you so much for sharing that and congratulations on your work there. It's so inspirational I have to say. And I'd love to talk a little bit more about American foreign policy with every new administration, it seems like the United States has a brand new foreign policy strategy that tends to change every four or eight years. Drawing from your experience as ambassador to Hungary, how does constant change in government impact our relationship with other countries? 


    Eleni Kounalakis: You know, Madeleine, that's a very good question. But I suspect if I were a former diplomat during an interview like this even 6, 7 years ago, certainly not 10, 12 years ago. You wouldn't even ask the question. Because by enlarge the tradition, certainly since the Second World War, has been that the adage that partisan politics ends at the water's edge. And even when I was going through my process to train to go abroad, what was relayed to me is that more than 90% of US foreign policy in fact, does not change depending who the president is, even if it is a president from a different party. That has changed over the course of the last few governments. And it's unfortunate because it really can impact our own national security. We don't want that. So I'm very hopeful that the Biden administration will be able to restore, especially under the leadership of Tony Blinken, our new Secretary of State, will be able to restore some of those grounding principles that can be adhered to regardless of the party that controls the White House. Now, Donald Trump definitely made a big difference. The things that he did were extremely unorthodox for a president. And his putting aside of so many norms of diplomacy, whether it was simple things like making sure that staff was taking notes whenever he had a conversation with a foreign leader. Something that wasn't required by law, but it had always been done because the people deserve to have a record of their president's conversations even if they're classified. So that maybe in ten years or more they would be declassified and we would have them as historic documents. So something that is kinda mundane and routine as that to going and setting up one-on-one meetings with Kim Jong-Un before there had been the diplomatic groundwork laid to ensure that a meeting like that would actually produce outcomes. So, you know, on top of that, of course, politicizing things like the Iran Deal. You know, we really need to try to get back to this place of recognizing that as much consistency as we can have in our foreign policy, regardless of who the president is, that as Americans, we should demand that. We should want that. Because our enemies will be able then to find these dividing lines among us that they can use to their advantage. 


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    Alfredo Barcenas: Thank you for sharing that and kind of that as an international relations perspective. And I know it's a lot of questions that, you know, even myself as a student ask in the classroom, but it's really something coming from someone who served in these roles. So I want to shift our focus a little bit now on your role as a Lieutenant Governor for the state of California. And just give a little bit of background to our listeners. You know, 2014 you were appointed as Chair of the California Advisory Council for International Trade and Investment between 2014-2017, Virtual Fellow in the US Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research specializing in International Trade and Immigration. And most recently you're appointed as Governor Gavin Newsom’s top representative to advance California's economic interests abroad on the California International Trade Commission. And it seems you have maintained kind of an international profile, following your time as an ambassador. What has been your experience so far at the state level? And can you tell us what the differences are, if any, from federal to state governments as they relate to international relations?


    Eleni Kounalakis: Well, thank you for asking that question. Yes, the governor has appointed me as California's representative for International Affairs and Trade. Governor Newsom and I are in two separate constitutional offices. We don't run together, there's no obligation. But we both agree that if we can work together in the interest of Californians, that is absolutely what we should do. So we have been collaborating in this portfolio. He recognizes how important California’s voice is on the world stage. And of course, this is my area of expertise. So it has been a great cooperation so far for many reasons. But what is also emerged and I've been able to put the focus on are three priorities for California in our international engagement. And I don't think anyone who really ever articulated them this way before. But first and foremost is the climate agenda, which is now being promoted again by the Biden administration as a stand-alone issue. We have worked hard to give voice to this issue from the California perspective, from a subnational level as a standalone issue. With some, I think, considerable success, particularly during the last four years. So for instance, Donald Trump directed the US to go, to move toward leaving the Paris Accord. California was able, along with several other states in the US to stay in through are primarily our emissions goals and our standards. So I went to China, was my very first trip, to the Belton Road Initiative. I was very clear. I was there on a stand-alone issue. I was not there representing the United States on the whole panoply of issues that the US government has with China. But speaking for California on a stand-alone issue of combating climate change. So we were able to do that. And by the way, I coordinated with the embassy in Beijing as well as with the State Department. Because, you know, we have to work together as a team, even when the federal and state government are having challenges as we did have with that administration. So that I think was an important success. So climate. Second, immigration. We’re 27 percent foreign born in this state, and we have the fifth largest economy in the world. California does not control US immigration. We do, however, find that we are impacted disproportionately from the rest of the country. And it has been very advantageous to California. In my strong view that we've had so many people from around the world coming here, bringing their talents and their culture to our state. Immigration has enriched our culture and it is most certainly helped to grow our economy, strengthen our economy so that we are the fifth largest economy in the world. Speaking about this on the international stage is something that's very important to us. The third issue, of course, is trade. 40 percent of all the containerized cargo that comes into the United States comes through California ports. The logistics, the job surrounding all of that activity. The exports of agriculture, technology products, zero emission vehicles which are now our number one export out of the state. Also very important for the California economy. And then of course, there's tourism, which is part of trade. Our economy derives enormous benefit from tourism over the years. We are a destination for people around the world, even just to come for a visit to be able to taste that California Dream. And as a result, about one out of five of all California jobs are associated with international trade, foreign direct investment, and tourism. So that work again, when you think of the trade regime, it's determined by federal policy, but it disproportionately affects us. So whether it's communicating with Washington on trade or doing what we can to support our businesses, roll out the red carpet for foreign investors, and do what we can to support two-way trade, foreign direct investment, and tourism. All of that is really important to jobs here at home. 


    Maddie Bunting: I want to say, you know, as a woman, it's an exciting moment when we see history in the making in regards to change in leadership within our country. And you have broken the glass ceiling in California by being elected the first female Lieutenant Governor. And I'm so curious, how significant is this achievement and what do you believe it means for the future of maybe California politics as well as American politics?


    Eleni Kounalakis: Well, Thank you, Madeleine, I certainly feel honored to be able to be the first woman elected as Lieutenant Governor in this state is something I keep with me on a daily basis and recognize that women helping other women is a really important part of how we get to equity along with our male allies. And I feel more optimistic than ever that in our state together. And I'm a mom, you know, people say I have daughters. I am so happy that you won because I have daughters, I want them to see that role model. Well, I have sons! And I want them to be part of a future where men and women are working together regardless of their gender, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity. Working together collaboratively with all the voices possible represented in every walk of life. So it is something that I feel responsible to be able to continue to carry that message. And we do have work to do. We've broken a lot of glass ceilings. We have more work to do. Kamala Harris, our very own Senator from this state, someone who is a friend and I could not be more proud of her and her accomplishments. Oh my goodness. I just saw a picture the other day of her sitting at her desk, historic desk of the vice president, with the American eagle carved in the front and there she is sitting behind it. The first woman, the first woman of color. What a person of color, what an extraordinary accomplishment. 


    Alfredo Barcenas: Yeah, most definitely even personally myself,  just seeing all these historical moments within American politics and just certainly around the world, all these changes I think it's inspiring even for myself to say, okay, one day maybe I can be in those shoes if I try hard enough. So I'm sure it's safe to say that we're all looking forward to a return to normalcy given the current pandemic that we're in that we have encountered. Where do you see the future of California following COVID-19? 


    Eleni Kounalakis: Well, I'm optimistic. Fortunately for California, we have a budget surplus, which is really remarkable. You know, the top income earners still earned. Many of those jobs were not lost. Big companies ended up doing well. People paid capital gains taxes there, you know, so that's great. But when you look at those who are not part of the top 1%, then you start to see that we have a lot of challenges ahead. First and foremost, getting our kids back in school, not just for the mental health of our kids, but of course for the ability of our families, the parents to be able to get back to work and get some relief. That is very important. But then one of the priorities of the Newsom Administration in the legislature has been to use some of this surplus to help support small and medium-sized businesses that have really taken the greatest hit. So being very thoughtful and strategic about where and how we make those investments. So as many companies that have been able to keep a heartbeat are able to recover as people begin to go outside and circulate and mix and do all those kinds of things again, that's very important. And I'm also extremely hopeful that we will get a federal stimulus package. The one that just passed the House, the American Rescue Act, very important for us in California to be able to support that big swath of Californians who rely on small business or who own small businesses to be able to keep their business going and get back on their feet. 


    Maddie Bunting: Definitely, I hope, you know, for every California and struggling right now I, you know, I think with vaccinations we're turning a corner. And so I hope, you know, as soon as possible, those who are struggling can get back on their feet and just continue with their lives and with their work. Before we wrap up this interview, I just again want to thank you for joining us and as a student at the University of California Riverside, many of our listeners and those who watched this podcast are our students as well, or within the student age range. And I'm wondering if you have any advice on entering a career in public service. 


    Eleni Kounalakis: Well, I have the opportunity to talk to students all the time. I sit on the board of the CSU system, the UC system, and now the Community College Board. Because frankly, I asked the governor and the legislature if they would pass a bill putting the lieutenant governor on the Community College Board so that he or she can sit as the one representative in elected office who sits on the board of all three. So I spent a lot of time talking to students to hear about their ambitions and their concerns. So in terms of advice, we talk a lot about a lot of things. We talk about the importance of preserving your mental health and getting help if you need it. If things are difficult, if you're struggling, asking for help is really important. Our graduation rates, particularly at the CSU, but also even at the UC, they are not as high as they could be. So helping us know what we can do to help our students is very important and there are a lot of people who care deeply about students' success. I am also really encouraged when I talk to students about how this generation does not see the barriers that my generation saw. You know, as a young woman, I didn't see a future for myself that ended up being anywhere near what the reality ended up being. I did however, believe that if I work really hard, I would always have opportunity. And I also believe, as many students in this generation do, that I should do the thing that makes me feel like I'm living up to my own sense of purpose. For me, that was public service. I think a lot of people find a strong sense of purpose in public service. And so for all of the students out there who are watching, I encourage you, try it. Go volunteer, go participate, go get involved with student government, or any kind of organized activity where students are making their voices heard. Or beyond in politics and in your communities. See how it feels to you. And even if you end up going into the private sector, keeping part of your activity in public service as an active member of civil society will also, I believe, give you that sense of fulfillment and purpose. And you'll make a lot of like-minded friends. Who again, I think that when you think about our collective health and sense of purpose and reason to get up out of bed every day more than just to go to work to pay your rent. You know, finding those communities of people who want to row towards the same kinds of civic goals is a very enriching thing to do. And of course, it is a pillar that holds up American democracy. 


    Maddie Bunting: What a wonderful way to put it. Thank you so much Lieutenant Governor for joining, speaking with us and talking about your amazing career. What you have accomplished is really amazing. And I hope for myself and Alfredo and just fellow students that we can get there one day. So thank you for your advice and thank you for speaking with us. 


    Eleni Kounalakis: Well, Thank you, Madeleine. Thank you, Alfredo. Thank you for everybody out there listening and can't wait until we can all be back on campus at UC Riverside and maybe eating some Cuties out of the trees. Usually somebody gives me some of those when I visit. I love it. Thanks everybody. 

    Outro: This podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. Our theme music was produced by C Codaine. I'm Maddie Bunting, till next time.