Election 2018: What Now?

Part III: Greek-American elected officials

Endy Zemenides, Executive Director

On more than one occasion, I have heard Greek-American voters claim that they look for Greek names on the ballot and just check the box. We are not unique in that practice — for example, having an Irish surname on a down-ballot race in Cook County, Illinois almost guarantees you election. As we are at an inflection point in our community’s history, we should consider more than ethnic pride when thinking about the Greek-Americans we are electing to office.

We have been fortunate with the Hellenes we have in the United States Congress — and I wrote about them in a previous piece. Let us shift our attention to elected officials at the state and local level.

Elected officials have unique opportunities to be leaders in the Greek-American community: they have relationships with and access to colleagues in their respective congressional delegations; they can help place more Hellenes in publicly influential positions — not in the narrow patronage sense, but by endorsing them for other elected positions, backing them for board appointments, or populating their senior staff with well-qualified Greek-Americans; they can open doors for Greece and Cyprus with governors and mayors around the country, relationships that can lead to significant commercial diplomacy and sharing of best practices — especially relevant as Greece remakes its public sector and regional policies. There have been great examples of Greek-American state officials stepping up in such manners. If one wonders how members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation — including the top Democratic Senator on defense issues, Jack Reed, and one of the most pro-Hellenic members of Congress, Representative David Cicilline — became such philhellenes, we don’t have to go search beyond the late George Panichas, Rhode Island’s first Greek-American state official. Statewide officials have even greater reach and influence. When Alexi Giannoulias served as Illinois State Treasurer, the membership of Illinois members of Congress in the Hellenic caucus increased significantly, Senator Dick Durbin became much more active in Hellenic issues, and the state and local Democratic party organizations started endorsing more Greek-American candidates.

Despite efforts by Greece to organize state and local Greek-American elected officials, the above standard has not been met on even a respectable level. This “organization” makes sure these officials get to Greece, and sometimes some resolutions on religious freedom or Greek Independence Day get passed at the state level — but we have to aim higher than that. And this is where the incoming class of Greek-American state officials is promising. There is not enough space in this column to cover every local Greek-American official, but here are some who won significant races in 2018 and show special promise in helping us aim higher as a community.

Starting on the Pacific, Eleni Kounalakis became the first Greek-American female to gain statewide elected office in California, as she was convincingly elected the state’s Lieutenant Governor. Her and her family’s commitment to the Greek-American community and to Greece itself has been well established. Now she has a platform that can make an even greater impact on these fronts. Greece’s economic strategy includes developing a film industry, a more robust start up sector, and further opportunities in the renewable energy sector. Imagine what doors the Lieutenant Governor-elect can help open in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley and at some of the top solar and wind companies in the world. Furthermore, she is now an elected colleague and political ally of the likely Speaker of the House of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi), the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee (Adam Schiff), and of a potential presidential candidate (Senator Kamala Harris).

Coming to the Midwest, we narrowly lost the chance to see the first ever Greek-American to take statewide office, as former Congressman Zack Space came up short in his bid for State Auditor. Given Ohio’s outsized role in Presidential elections, having a Greek-American statewide official (with a historically close relationship with the community) would have been a great asset in the 2020 election. Space, however, will still play a role in Ohio politics. He remains close to Senator Sherrod Brown (another potential presidential candidate), high profile Congressman Tim Ryan, will be writing a regular column in Ohio newspapers, launching a podcast, and doing grassroots organizing — all with the purpose of drawing back the FDR Democrats (that were part of his base as Congressman) to the party. In 2020, Ohio will be critical in both the Democratic primary and the general election. Space’s support could help a candidate break through to white working-class voters, and despite not gaining statewide office he remains an asset the Greek-American community should cultivate.

Ending on the East Coast, two young Greek-Americans flipped control of the New York State Senate to the Democratic Party. Andrew Gounardes has been an especially active member of the community and has already been more active in terms of advocacy on Hellenic issues than most state and local Greek-American elected officials in the United States. He knows the issues, has always shown up, and has a strong familial commitment to the Church. His new Senate colleague — jumping over from the State Assembly — is James Skoufis, who gives New York’s Greek-American community a champion outside the immediate environs of New York City. Skoufis has already enjoyed a quick rise in New York politics, and is often mentioned as a successor for Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who for the past few years has appeared to be looking to move on from the House of Representatives. Together with Senator Mike Gianaris — who will soon become the second-most powerful Democrat in the state Senate — and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, Gounardes and Skoufis will be part of a potentially potent Greek-American team in New York’s state capital. Combine these elected officials with George Tsunis — the chairman of the Nassau Health Care Corp and of the Battery Park City Authority, and clearly one of New York’s most important power brokers, and local officials like New York City Council member Costas Constantinides and Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, there is no question that an increasingly blue New York will be guided by a new generation of Greek-American leaders.