The Pelosi Succession Wild Card & More Suns Drama

Eleni Kounalakis
Eleni Kounalakis, California's Lieutenant Governor. Photo: Panayiotis Tzamaros/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
October 11, 2022

On Friday morning, I stopped by the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Nancy Pelosi had been hosting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s annual Ultimate Women’s Power Luncheon and Issues Conference. Hundreds of mostly female donors, fundraisers, and operatives were hanging around the hotel, two blocks from my apartment, so it was a good place to people-watch and catch up with sources who were milling about. Behind closed doors, D.C.C.C. chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and House Majority PAC chief Abby Curran Horrell gave donors an update on the House map; Reps. Barbara Lee and Judy Chu did a panel on abortion; and Reps. Jared Huffman and Mary Peltola did one on climate. Then everyone flooded downstairs for a luncheon with Pelosi, who gifted her guests with a “DOWN WITH NDP” tote, featuring Pelosi’s likeness in a trademark look with shades and a red overcoat. She was mobbed for photos.

Yes, the cult of Pelosi persists, but times are a-changin’ in House leadership, as my Puck partner Tara Palmeri has previously noted. If Democrats lose the House—which, to be sure, is no longer quite the foregone conclusion it was a few months ago—Pelosi is widely expected to resign her seat early next year, triggering the spectacle of a special election in San Francisco, to say nothing of the leadership race in Washington. It’s a great unspoken plot twist looming over the midterms.

I’ve written before that much of the succession conversation in San Francisco political circles centers on Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committeewoman and literal Pelosi heir, and Scott Wiener, the city’s tech-friendly, six-foot-seven state senator. But there is one other wild-card name that has been generating some buzz among plugged-in politicos: Eleni Kounalakis, the state’s lieutenant governor. Kounalakis has an elite pedigree of her own—she is the daughter of a real-estate titan in Sacramento, where she worked alongside her father before getting into politics. Over the years she became a significant Democratic bundler, frequently hosting candidates and other contributors at her place in Pacific Heights, a posture that helped her become Barack Obama’s ambassador to Hungary. In 2018, in her first bid for office, she was elected independently to serve as Gavin Newsom’s No. 2. 

These days, Kounalakis is using her heft to fundraise for Prop 1, the effort to enshrine the right to an abortion in California’s state constitution. The ballot initiative is expected to pass, but Eleni wants to send a message by having it pass by a huge margin, so she has been working the phones and Zooms with the many Bay Area philanthropists in her Rolodex, telling them privately that she is donating $100,000 from her own wallet and asking them to match it, I’m told.

The conventional wisdom posits that Eleni is principally interested in succeeding Newsom, who is term-limited after 2026. That would be the safe path, for sure, and it is the one that people close to her currently expect her to take. In fact, Eleni herself has talked publicly about her desire to break the glass ceiling and become the state’s first female governor. Plus, wouldn’t being one of 435 congresspeople, and a back-bencher no less, be a step down from being the possible next governor of one of the world’s largest economies? Nevertheless, there is some real and growing insider chatter, including among people who used to work for her, that Eleni might take a shot at running for Pelosi’s seat should it open early next year. 

To be clear, I am not reporting that Eleni is interested in Pelosi’s seat; her most likely next move is to succeed Newsom. But that hasn’t stopped insiders from observing that 2026 is a long way away, whereas any successor to Pelosi is likely to immediately have a big profile. The Pelosi seat hasn’t come up in 30 years, and you’d think that Eleni would at least look at it. After all, she would be a formidable candidate, with statewide name I.D. and a soft touch with executives in both Hollywood and Silicon Valley after years of raising money alongside them. Eleni is one of the listed hosts of Kamala Harris’s fundraising trip to the Bay Area next week, and there she was Friday during the Pelosi confab, shaking hands with donors with status-connoting stars on their nametags in the VIP reception in the hotel’s “Gold Room.” 

Shortly before Pelosi introduced Jill Biden to the 65-or-so tables of candidates, local electeds, and contributors crammed into the Fairmont’s grand ballroom, Pelosi gave perfunctory shout-outs to local dignitaries, friends and family, I’m told. That included recognizing both Christine and Eleni, who, in her own way, considers Pelosi to be an almost mother-like figure, too. Could those two be on a collision course?


Updates on The Suns Sweepstakes

The embattled Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver formally kickstarted the process of selling the team last week by hiring the well-regarded boutique investment bank, Moelis, and its cofounder Navid Mahmoodzadegan, to market a sale. But here at Puck we are well into our own diligence process—after all, Sarver is likely to seek a hefty valuation, likely $4 billion-plus, for a team that made the Finals two years ago, is an hour or two flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco, and is likely to increase in franchise value with new media deals on the horizon. In other words, this isn’t the same sort of thing as the serial entrepreneur Marc Lore and A-Rod getting their hands on the Timberwolves for $1.5 billion. The sales process could reportedly take six to nine months—notably longer than it took Donald Sterling to offload the Clippers after his own racism imbroglio—so this will be a bone to chase through the entire season.

Despite Shaq blaming Jeff Bezos for big-footing him out of a putative deal—an only-in-TMZ subplot triggered by a stray, aggregation-gone-wild on-air comment from Ramona Shelburne on ESPN a few weeks back—there is no actual reporting to suggest that Bezos himself is interested in the Suns. A Bezos spokesperson didn’t comment, but I would be surprised to see him make any sort of bid.

A more likely suitor, as I wrote earlier this month, is Larry Ellison, who has tried four separate times to get his hands on an NBA franchise. His most recent attempt was in 2014, when Ellison tried to buy the Clippers with his deal partners—Oprah and David Geffen—but lost out to Steve Ballmer, whose $2 billion offer reset the market for franchise value. Geffen was the frontman of that bid—he confirmed the effort on the record at the time to ESPN, saying that he and Ellison had long harbored plans to buy a team together. “We’ve talked about this for a long time,” Geffen said. 

But don’t expect that pair to make a joint bid this time around for the Suns: I am told by a source that Geffen has no current interest in trying to buy the franchise. Which, of course, casts some doubt on whether Ellison has a bid of his own in store. He’d have to put together his own group, similar to what he did in 2010 when he lost out on an attempt to buy the Warriors by himself. Ellison then declared it “unusual” that he lost that time around because he was the “highest bidder” … but in the victors’ retelling, they stole it from right beneath his nose. Can Ellison move fast this time around? Reps for Ellison didn’t return requests for comment.

Meanwhile, an oft-forgotten minority participant in that same Geffen-led 2014 bid for the Clips was Laurene Powell Jobs, who I wrote the other week could have a strong case to make as a potential buyer of the Suns. But over the last few weeks I’ve been hearing from sources who say that, actually, Powell Jobs isn’t terribly interested in making a splashy bid for the franchise. She is described to me as generally satisfied with her current level of involvement in professional basketball: A 20 percent-or-so ownership stake in Monumental Sports in partnership with her close friend, Ted Leonsis, the early AOL mogul. After all, there are only so many things that L.P.J. can spend her time on—she is a hoops fan, but her interests in other fields, like art and education, exceeds that. She already has a team, kinda, and I am getting the sense that she is unlikely to move heaven and earth to acquire a bigger stake in a different one.

For what it’s worth, the absence of L.P.J. and Geffen potentially enfeebles any potential Ellison bid. Unlike the NFL, which is still largely a Republican-led protectorate and a place where Colin Kaepernick can be penalized for expressing himself, the NBA ownership is quite different: younger, more socially conscious, and progressive. Will the owners welcome a bid from someone who threw Trump a big fundraiser, pitched him on hydroxychloroquine, and joined Trump allies on a call after Election Day to investigate how to challenge the 2020 results? Probably not—if there is another competitive bid.


The Thiel-McConnell Car Crash

There is a lot of chatter in my text threads with Republican operatives across Washington, Arizona, and Silicon Valley over whether Peter Thiel will finally come through for protégé Blake Masters in the homestretch. Election Day is four weeks away, and Masters has trailed in every public poll of the race, in part because he is being badly outspent. Thiel, of course, donated $15 million for Masters during the Arizona G.O.P. primary, and hosted a hard-dollar fundraiser for him last week (pic here), but has yet to spend a dollar on Blake’s behalf during the general election. And although I frequently hear optimism from sources that a check of some type is coming at some point, I’ve been hearing variations on that theme for months. Meanwhile, early voting in the state begins tomorrow. “If you’re going to have an impact on the race, you’ve got to be in now,” one G.O.P. operative in the state told me… last week.

At least Masters himself is now on television, after months in the dark, and at least now Trump is spending on his behalf, as Thiel friend Ann Coulter had urged, with a $1 million or so in new ad buy, furnished by his super PAC. But even Trump, who held a rally for Masters over the weekend, is unsatisfied with the G.O.P. cavalry for Masters, releasing a statement yesterday that castigated “the Old Broken Crow Mitchell McConnell” and his Senate Leadership Fund for spending money for Lisa Murkowski rather than for Masters. McConnell candidly said in a new interview that his allies hadn’t done so because of “resource allocation” issues with Thiel.

Masters is projecting confidence over something he can’t control: “I know a lot more people are going to get involved here in October,” he told Maria Bartiromo this week when asked about the arrival of more support from Thiel or McConnell. His best chance for big outside money might be to pray for the implosion of Don Bolduc, the G.O.P. Senate nominee in New Hampshire, who’s sucking up S.L.F. money even as other Republicans wonder whether it’s time to enter triage mode in that state. In the meantime, McConnell and Thiel are still playing the same game of chicken, perhaps hesitant to throw good money after bad. People forget that sometimes games of chicken end with neither car swerving—and the two vehicles crashing into one another, instead.

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