California’s first female Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis talks trade with growers at Citrus Showcase March 3 at Visalia Convention Center
VISALIA – The state’s first female lieutenant governor decided to spend her birthday in Visalia on March 3, blowing out her candles in front of a group of 100 citrus farmers.
The cake was a surprise organized by Congressman Jim Costa (CA-16) who was in attendance to hear Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis talk to growers as the guest speaker at the Citrus Showcase at the Visalia Convention Center. Held annually by California Citrus Mutual, which advocates for about one-third of the state’s citrus farmers, the Citrus Showcase is a conference for citrus farmers at the center of the Valley, in the top citrus producing county at the center of the top citrus producing state in the nation.
“I came down here to talk about the things we can all agree on, which is that producing food for Californians and the rest of the country is really important,” Kounalakis said.
Kounalakis said she is a lover of Sumo citrus, a larger, easy peel mandarin, and has an affinity for farmers. She said her father immigrated to the United States, settling in a Greek neighborhood in Sacramento. He started a business working with dairy farmers. Kounalakis became the first person to graduate from college after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1989. She later attended UC Berkeley where she earned a master’s degree in real estate from the Haas School of Business. After college, she joined the family real estate business. As she delved more into residential real estate, Kounalakis went to work for AKT Development, one of the most respected housing development firms in California.
Kounalakis is the first female lieutenant governor and the first in her office to visit Visalia since Valley native Cruz Bustamante in the early 2000s. Prior to being sworn in as the 50th lieutenant governor on Jan. 7, 2019, Kounalakis, a Democrat, served as an ambassador during the Obama Administration. From 2010 to 2013, she served as US Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary and in 2015 published an acclaimed memoir, “Madam Ambassador, Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties and Democracy in Budapest.”
Kounalakis had never considered running for office until after she returned from her work overseas. She eventually decided to run for Lt. Gov., which is elected separately from the Governor in California, and was elected to serve under Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2018.
“Even I wasn’t quite sure what I would be doing as lieutenant governor,” Kounalakis said.
She said a big part of the office is working in public higher education. Following a bill she supported and signed by Newsom, the lieutenant governor is now the only person who serves on the University of California Board of Regents, the Board of Trustees of the California State University system, and the Board of Governors of California Community Colleges with a combined enrollment of about 2.8 million students.
“This land of opportunity has existed for immigrant families to get an education, and then to use that innovation, that education and that can do spirit. That is what has created not just the American dream for my family but is the California story,” she said.
More important to the growers at the Citrus Showcase, Kounalakis is the state’s representative for International Affairs and Trade, where she has led trade missions to Mexico City and Delhi, India, where she worked to increase imports of California almonds. She said one in five jobs in California can be attributed to imports and exports, foreign direct investment and tourism. Kounalakis said 40% of all cargo containers coming into the United States enter through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. She also gave a more obscure reference about the port of Hueneme in Ventura County, where 3 billion bananas are offloaded from ships every year, equal to 10 bananas for every man, woman and child in the nation.
“So the challenges are big, because the magnitude of the operation is so big,” she said. “Having said that, we have to address these challenges head on, and frankly, this is an area where I have seen quite a bit of bipartisan support.”
The state government expected there would be supply chain issues due to the global pandemic, but the volatility of the situation made it unpredictable and prevented a strategic response. Instead of 2020 seeing a supply chain collapse, Kounalakis said 2020 saw trade volumes 15% higher than 2019, which was a record year. She said her office has worked to alleviate the congestion at ports and reduced cargo ships anchored off of Long Beach and LA from 110 down to about 70.
“There have been historic increases in year-end volume and so more congestion is just a byproduct of the huge demand for imports,” Kounalakis said.
The downside of all that trade, she said, is the pollution that comes with large tankers idling offshore, equipment used to load and unload the ships, and waiting trucks to transport goods up and down the state. She said port cities have higher levels of asthma due to the fumes. Kounalakis said California should accept these challenges to balance issues through innovation and then market the solutions to the world.
“These are the things that can kind of get under your skin when it’s just sort of an us versus them,” she said, referring to political polarization in the country. “We can grow the economy, but take into account things like air pollution, and we end up being on the front lines of the innovation, which then gets adopted all around the world.”
She likened the solution to ports and pollution to what farmers have done with water in California, where fruit and nut growers were able to transform irrigation from flood to drip and continue to grow higher yields on the same patch of land.
“You go to other places in the world that may have water problems, they can’t claim that and so that necessity has bred innovation that continues to put California on the forefront,” she said.
Regardless of their resiliency and innovation, Kounalakis said one of the biggest issues facing agriculture is the disconnect between consumers and the people who grow their food. Other than farmers markets, farmers do not sell directly to customers with a host of middle men involved in the packing, shipping, purchasing, brokering, marketing and sales to the end consumer. She said the average person leaves the grocery store, gets on the freeway and drives past the very farms which produced the product yet never makes the connection between the two.
“You can’t really expect the general public to see all these connections but you certainly need to demand that elected officials know what the challenges are,” she said.
She said business advocates, like California Citrus Mutual, need to build relationships with offices like hers but the real challenge for farmers, and California communities, is going to be our dwindling water supply. She applauded farmers for their willingness to come together to develop solutions through the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley. The blueprint is a coalition of fruit associations, water agencies, irrigation districts and local officials to prevent catastrophic impacts to crops, community, cash and capital due to water scarcity.
“That’s what’s going to drive the industry right now,” she said.