Democrats would do right to do right by Abel Maldonado

Voting to reject the pragmatic GOP centrist as lieutenant governor would send the message that bipartisan cooperation doesn't pay.

Capitol Journal

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated state Sen. Abel Maldonado to be the next lieutenant governor last month. Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria, has parted with his caucus on key votes. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

From Sacramento

Within a few weeks, the embattled and belittled California Legislature will take one of two actions:

* Approve state Sen. Abel Maldonado's nomination by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be lieutenant governor because that's the smart and right thing to do.

* Or reject the nomination in another exhibition of petty and partisan politics.

"This Legislature is in public disrepute, and one reason is they all hate each other," says Tony Quinn, political analyst and former GOP legislative advisor. "This is a chance to reduce the partisan bile."

"Hate" may be a tad strong. "Fear" is probably more precise in this era of musical-chair term limits. The Capitol is full of competitors.

It's impossible to predict how the Democratic-dominated Legislature will treat the moderate Republican farmer from Santa Maria, who's still relatively young at 42, has a heartwarming "only in America" immigrant story and would be in solid position to eventually run for governor if he can get elected No. 2 next November. Big "if."

Right now, it's not a burning issue in the Capitol. Legislative leaders are busy drafting education "reforms" that would qualify California for hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars. They're also facing yet another gargantuan budget deficit. Those things are important to people. The lieutenant governor's job is not.

In fact, the lieutenant governor's office should be abolished. Its only real purpose is to provide a replacement for a resigning governor. That hasn't happened in 56 years, not since Gov. Earl Warren was named chief justice of the United States.

At the very least, the governor and lieutenant governor should run as a ticket, a la president and veep. Schwarzenegger and Maldonado agree.

"Imagine Barack Obama campaigning for healthcare and Joe Biden running around saying it's a mistake," Maldonado says.

A Schwarzenegger-Maldonado pairing would be a de facto ticket. "I'm going to do everything in my power to sell the governor's vision every single day," Maldonado says.

OK, but your office would have little power, I note. He counters that he has been in the Senate minority, without a leadership role, "yet managed to make my position relevant on every big issue."

That's because he is a pragmatic centrist whose vote usually has been attainable by Democrats -- and also is the most adept horse-trader in the building. The bartering has irked many Republicans and exasperated some Democrats. But that's the way the system is designed because of a two-thirds vote requirement on money bills.

Maldonado's biggest acquisition has been an open primary ballot measure, long sought by both him and Schwarzenegger. Liberals deeply resented being forced to vote for that in February. But they did as partial payment for Maldonado's vote to raise taxes, which angered conservatives.

"I upset people," Maldonado agrees, "but California is not bankrupt today. California is not sending out IOUs."

Maldonado plans to run for lieutenant governor next year regardless of whether he's confirmed by the Legislature. Pitching Schwarzenegger from a soap box is one thing. What if he's elected and a Democrat -- Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown -- becomes the next governor?

"Then I'll be working with Jerry Brown," he says. "If I have a disagreement, I'll talk to the governor in private. But I'm not going to be campaigning around the state beating up on a governor, Democrat or Republican, just to get press. That's not productive for the people. It's got to stop."

Obviously Maldonado was not mentored by former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a constant Schwarzenegger basher who vacated the office after winning a congressional seat.

To be confirmed, Maldonado must survive both legislative houses. If they neither confirm nor reject him by Feb. 16, he would take office automatically. But most likely, the Legislature will exercise the power it possesses -- and probably shouldn't.

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