Dentons partner Jeffrey Bleich is criss-crossing California these days, introducing himself to voters who will decide next year whether he should be the state’s next lieutenant governor. The Recorder recently caught up with the Democratic candidate before he took his campaign to Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The conversation that follows was edited for length and clarity.
The Recorder: You’ve served as U.S. ambassador to Australia, president of the California State Bar, you’ve served in the White House—
Bleich: Chaired the Cal State [board of] trustees, was president of the bar association of California.
Right, OK. Don’t you feel like you’ve met your public service quota? Why leave the private sector?
After the last election I came away with this feeling that too few people were voting and too many people were feeling left behind. And there were a number of big issues that had to be addressed, and we couldn’t count on Washington, D.C., to address them. And so when President [Barack] Obama said don’t agonize, organize, lace up your shoes and run, I thought there are important things we need to do. So I’ve decided to lace up my shoes.
Why lieutenant governor? If there’s a state office that’s more derided, I’m not sure what it is.
Lieutenant governor is perfect for the kind of stuff I want to do. You don’t get balled up in day-to-day politics but you have real authority. I want to work on economic issues and the lieutenant governor chairs the Commission for Economic Development. I want to focus on retraining workers for jobs of the future and the lieutenant governor serves on the Cal State board, the community college board and the UC regents—the only person who serves on all three simultaneously. I want to focus on the environment and resilience and you serve on the Ocean Protection Council and the State Lands Commission. You’re also generally appointed by the governor to the Coastal Commission.
In each of those cases you’ve got authority to drive policy and you also have a bully pulpit to drive initiatives on things that matter to people. It’s a lot like being ambassador. As an ambassador you could stand on a veranda if you wanted, or else you can do some real hard work on behalf of the people.
You’re pretty well known in the Bay Area, in legal circles and Democratic circles. How do you get your name and campaign message out to everyone else?
I’m counting on the Australian vote. They’re very friendly people and they’ll be all over the state of California. But also I’ve worked all over the state of California. When I was state bar president I visited all the county bars. Likewise, when I was chair of the Cal State University board, I visited all 23 campuses. And I spent 23 years as part of an LA-based law firm [Munger, Tolles & Olson]. And now I’m part of the largest law firm in the world, with offices all over California. So I know California well and I know people all over the state.
This is a fairly crowded Democratic field so far. There’s even another former U.S. ambassador [Eleni Kounalakis] in the race. How do you set yourself apart?
I think there’s a tendency among Democrats to always think they’re running against Republicans and stick to what are traditionally Democratic issues. I think there are a whole set of issues that no one is talking about that are very important to everyone and that will help bring people together and also address problems. For example, we have an epidemic of mental health issues—suicide, depression, opioid addiction—in the state and in the 1960s we dismantled our mental health services.
That’s the kind of issue that I’ve been focused on. I don’t hear other people talking about it because it doesn’t really distinguish one party from the other. I’m trying to step outside of wedge issues and focus on the issues that affect all Californians.
After President Donald Trump was elected, did you ever think about heading back to Washington and joining “the resistance”?
Yeah, you have to resist fear and bigotry and lies and bad policy, of course. But that doesn’t get you where you need to be. You also need to make progress, not just stop one agenda. I was always struck by the fact that during the depths of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln put into effect the college land grant program because you had to have something that was there for the union when the war was over. There had to be progress. I think that should be our model, which is, yeah, you should always fight things that you oppose but you also have to be more than against something.
Are you thinking beyond lieutenant governor if you should win?
Leo McCarthy was a great lieutenant governor. I think there were many people who were lieutenant governors who were very happy that that was their job. For me, every job I’ve taken I’ve taken because I’ve thought I could do something meaningful and valuable there. Who knows where that will lead? But I don’t go into a job thinking, “This is a stepping stone.” I’m doing it because I want to do a good job as lieutenant governor.
If you win, does that mean you would have to become a fan of the Dodgers and the Lakers as opposed to just the A’s and the Giants now?
Absolutely not. I’m running on authenticity. I’m a true blue Warriors and Niners fan. And I’ve always liked both the A’s and the Giants.