Editorial: Lieutenant governor candidate came to Modesto. Not to talk, but to listen.

Eleni Kounalakis dropped by our editorial board this week, and she did something fairly unusual for a politician.

She listened.

She came with a folder full of stories, mostly printed off www.modbee.com, and mostly about our region’s battle with the state to hold onto enough water to keep our faucets flowing, our farms growing and our fish swimming.

She asked about our water rights, and how long we’ve had them. She wanted to know more about how Turlock and Modesto are connected to San Francisco through the Tuolumne River. She wanted to know if the irrigation districts really have put enough effort into improving the habitat (they are doing it now), and how much danger lurks in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for the juvenile salmon who make it there (97 percent don’t make it out). We tried our best to answer her questions.

She asked if we thought the State Water Resources Control Board’s process for deciding momentous issues was fair. We’re not sure she heard our answer through the laughter.

If Kounalakis was feigning interest, she was doing a helluva job. Not only that, but her questions showed she gets it. That shouldn’t be surprising.

It’s well known that Kounalakis is the daughter of a wealthy land developer. But she was raised in rural Sacramento, down a dirt road in a house in the middle of fields sometimes planted with pumpkins, sometimes tomatoes. She knows how fine the dust gets when it covers your shoes and what it’s like to lose that dust by jumping into a canal on a hot day for a swim. She knows farmers need water, and they put it to good use.

Lieutenant governor is not an especially powerful position – if you don’t want it to be. Most lieutenant governors have been content to shake hands, pose for photos and remain in eternal readiness in case the governor steps in front of a bus. We don’t expect Kounalakis – if she beats Southern California’s Ed Hernandez in November – to have much sway on our issues. But she might.

Gavin Newsom proved that lieutenant governors are capable of more. He pushed through an initiative legalizing marijuana and rules for buying ammunition. He made the job a credible steppingstone. Kounalakis, if elected, could follow a similar trajectory. Clearly, she doesn’t lack ambition.

That’s why all those questions about water were important. As lieutenant governor, she might be in meetings where the water we need to sustain our lives comes up … or is being divvied up. If she raises her voice, it’s likely others will listen. If she questions the state’s water grab, answers will have to be given. If she calls for accountability, it might save thousands of jobs in Modesto, Merced and even San Francisco.

Journalists prefer to do the asking, not the answering. From one Valley person to another, we hope our answers made sense.

WE WEREN’T THE only stop on Kounalakis’ agenda. President Ellen Jung at Stanislaus State made a strong impression. Considering that one of the lieutenant governor’s few duties is to sit on the boards of regents for the California State University and University of California systems, that’s an important connection.

Kounalakis might also have made a fundraising stop or two, that would be expected. After all, Newsom has been in Modesto three times we’re aware of and his opponent, John Cox, at least twice. If they’re not asking for contributions, they’re missing opportunities.

But when a politician takes the time to listen and learn more about a region than simply the addresses of its biggest donors, that’s a good sign.