By Dan Smith and Jim Sanders
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, risking a confirmation fight, announced Monday that he will appoint Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado to fill the vacant lieutenant governor’s job.

Schwarzenegger unveiled his pick during a taping of the “Jay Leno Show.”

“He is a terrific, loyal man that has worked very hard in public service,” Schwarzenegger said. “But he’s also into bipartisanship and post-partisanship, so he can also cross the aisle.”

Maldonado, 42, of Santa Maria, has been one of the Republican governor’s few GOP allies in the Legislature. He provided a key vote this year to help push through tax increases and a budget plan over the objections of most Republican lawmakers.

In a written statement released by Schwarzenegger, Maldonado said he would honored to serve as lieutenant governor, which pays $159,134 per year but is scheduled to drop to $130,490 next month.

“Like the governor, I learned the values of hard work, dedication and personal responsibility at a young age and place a high priority on reforming California’s broken government,” Maldonado said.

His appointment to the slot left open by the election of Democrat John Garamendi to Congress earlier this month presents an interesting dilemma for the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican lawmakers who want the seat themselves.

Maldonado would be the only California Latino currently serving in statewide office.

But Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, said Maldonado’s selection is no reason for Latinos to rejoice.

“It’s not a great signal, because he has turned his back on the Latino community on every issue imaginable,” Torrico said of Maldonado’s stand on public schools, higher education, homeownership and other key issues.

One likely GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, Sen. Sam Aanestad of Penn Valley, said Schwarzenegger’s decision represents “business as usual” while voters “are looking for people with political principles and integrity.”

Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta called Maldonado a “valuable member” of the Senate GOP caucus and a “well qualified choice” for lieutenant governor.

But Maldonado’s selection ruffled feathers among Republicans who hated to see him rewarded after splitting with GOP colleagues on raising taxes, and among Democrats who want Garamendi replaced by someone within his own party.

“Why would Democrats confirm a Republican for statewide office?” said John Burton, state chairman of the Democratic Party.

Sen. Jeff Denham, a Merced Republican expected to run for lieutenant governor, said it is “difficult to see how a candidate who has voted for a massive tax increase could possibly win a statewide Republican primary.”

Adding to the political intrigue is the fact that Democrats, by confirming Maldonado, would free up a moderate Senate seat that some believe the party could win.

By capturing the seat, Democrats would have 26 votes in the upper house, one shy of a two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes, approve the budget bill or override vetoes.

One Democrat seeking the seat next year, Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter, predicted the Senate would reject Maldonado.

“It is especially troubling to see the governor miss out on an opportunity to save taxpayer money by rewarding Senator Maldonado with a post that could be left open until the next election only months away,” Florez said.

Under the constitution, lawmakers have 90 days to act on Maldonado’s appointment.

If either the Assembly or the Senate rejects him on a majority vote, he will remain in the Senate and the governor would have the option of finding a new nominee or leaving the job vacant.

If the two houses approve Maldonado on a majority vote – or fail to act within 90 days – he would fulfill the final year of Garamendi’s term.

Maldonado acknowledged in February that “some people are probably going to lynch me” for supporting a multibillion-dollar tax increase.

To secure Maldonado’s vote, lawmakers reluctantly agreed to place on the June 2010 ballot a constitutional amendment to create open primaries in state elections, a potential boost to moderates such as Maldonado.

Maldonado also pushed successfully for a restructuring of the budget’s tax package – including elimination of a proposed 12-cent gas tax hike – and for a ballot measure to ban legislative raises in years when the state is in deficit.

A family farmer and former mayor of Santa Maria, Maldonado came to Sacramento as an assemblyman in 1998 amid much promise – a Latino Republican, the son of an immigrant who came to the United States a year before Maldonado was born.

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