Backing Maldonado would be smart

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. Schwarzenegger to be lieutenant governor because that's the smart and right thing to do.

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," said Tony Quinn, political analyst and former GOP legislative adviser. "This is a chance to reduce the partisan bile."

"Hate" may be a tad strong. "Fear" is 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 relatively young at 42, has a heartwarming "only in America" immigrant story, and would be in solid position to run for governor eventually 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 another gargantuan budget deficit.

Those things are important to people. The lieutenant governor's job is not. In fact, the job should be abolished.

Its only purpose is to provide a replacement for a resigning governor. That hasn't happened in 56 years, not since Gov. 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 vice president.

Also, Schwarzenegger and Maldonado agree, making them a de facto ticket.

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

OK, but your office would have little power, I noted. He countered 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 Schwarzenegger and him. 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 agreed, "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 — say, Attorney General Jerry Brown — becomes the next governor?

"Then I'll be working with Jerry Brown," he said. "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 ex-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.

A governor, on his own, can fill a U.S. Senate or county supervisor vacancy. He also should be able to fill a vacant statewide office.

Moreover, if Democratic Senate leader Darrell Steinberg's initial "grave doubt" about confirming Maldonado has any credence, which it doesn't, the governor should be able to fill vacant legislative and congressional seats. Steinberg complained that Maldonado's confirmation would require spending $2 million on a special election to replace him in the Senate. We can't afford it, he inferred.

Come on, senator! There seems to be a special election every other month. Want to save money? Eliminate all special elections.

But money isn't the real problem for Democrats. Their problem is that confirming Maldonado would give him a head start on winning the lieutenant governor's race.

Steinberg apparently feels he needs to protect Democratic Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter, who's also running for lieutenant governor. But Florez's bigger problem is another Democratic contender, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

This isn't only about partisan politics. It's about party politics. Two conservative GOP senators are running: Jeff Denham of Atwater and Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley. Maldonado threatens their ambitions.

But his rejection by the Legislature could turn Maldonado into a martyr with added appeal for Latinos. And he could become a message carrier for anti-Sacramento voters.

It would be particularly dumb for Democrats to dump all over a Republican who has fought in their foxhole. That would send a lousy message about bipartisan cooperation.

The smart thing would be to confirm Maldonado. Democrats could contest his vacated Senate seat in a special election. It's competitive. Win that and they're within one vote of a two-thirds majority.

But Democrats aren't confident they can capture that Central Coast seat in a low-turnout special election in what could be a Republican year.

They should do the right thing anyway: Confirm a decent, qualified guy and avoid another self-inflicted wound.

Legislators need to inject themselves with some antitoxin against partisan poison and stop spreading the virus.

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