CAPITOL JOURNAL

Playing games with Maldonado could backfire for the Assembly.
By George Skelton Capitol Journal

February 8, 2010

Reporting from Sacramento

The Legislature is about to decide whether to allow a colleague to become the first Republican Latino to hold statewide office in 135 years. But more important questions also will be answered:

* Can the Legislature’s Democratic majority vote for a Republican? Can Democratic Latinos vote for a potentially rival Republican Latino?

* Can Republican conservatives vote for one of the Legislature’s very rare Republican moderates?

* In short, can this Legislature behave in a bipartisan manner? Or will it act out in a spat of petty politics?

The Senate seems to be answering these questions on the side of — as Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) puts it — “comity.” As in: civility, cooperation and camaraderie.

That house, generally consisting of the more experienced lawmakers, appears poised to confirm Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nomination of Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) to fill the vacant post of lieutenant governor. Ten months remain on the term; Maldonado intends to run for a full term this year regardless of whether he’s confirmed.

The Senate will probably act later this week, perhaps after Democrats extract more votes from Maldonado to help solve the state’s perpetually pressing budget deficit.

The Assembly, long considered the Legislature’s kindergarten — especially under term limits — is tilting toward playing politics. He’s not a member of that house, so there’s no sense of family loyalty. The Rules Committee is scheduled to take up the nomination Monday afternoon.

“All I’m asking for is a fair hearing,” Maldonado says. “I hope it doesn’t get personal.”

All indications are they’ll give him a “fair” hearing and then erect the gallows. It won’t be personal. Just politics.

But also futile. It’s likely Maldonado would be resurrected as a martyr, possessing the ability to campaign all over California against Sacramento, pointing to himself as yet another victim of political polarization and nonsense. He’d be living proof of the need for reform and someone who possesses the credentials of a reformer.

The legislative procedure is this: Each house has until midnight Feb. 21 to reject Maldonado’s nomination. If they don’t act or confirm him by then, the result is the same: He takes office.

But there’s also a political timetable: If he is confirmed by Feb. 16, the governor can schedule a runoff election to fill Maldonado’s Senate seat to coincide with the June 8 state primary. The turnout would be larger than in a special election and presumably benefit Democrats as they attempt to capture Maldonado’s seat.

Capturing that seat — and raising their total to 26, one short of the magic two-thirds majority needed for money bills — is a strong incentive for Senate Democrats to confirm Maldonado.

Schwarzenegger chose the 42-year-old son of an immigrant farmworker to replace Democrat John Garamendi, who resigned as lieutenant governor after being elected to Congress.

“I love this guy,” the Republican governor says, calling Maldonadoa pragmatist who “only works for what’s best for the people of California, not for his party.”

Maldonado has straddled the partisan divide and occasionally crossed over to work — dicker — with Democrats. Most famously — or infamously, depending on your view — he struck a hard bargain last February to provide the final Senate vote needed for a two-thirds majority to pass a $12.5-billion temporary tax increase.

The state was running out of cash and halting construction projects. “We were killing jobs,” Maldonado recalls. “We had to govern.”

In return for his vote, Democrats and the governor agreed to three Maldonado demands: Place a measure on this year’s June ballot to create an open primary system, scuttle a proposed 12-cent gas tax increase that would have raised $2 billion and authorize a ballot measure that banned legislative pay raises when the state runs in the red.

There was something there to hate for nearly every legislator, especially the open primary — which party partisans abhor — and the publicly popular pay hike ban, which smacked of meaningless demagoguery. Being forced to abandon the gas tax hike really rankled Democrats.

Maldonado’s negotiating success is being cited by some Assembly Democrats as a justification for killing his nomination.

Assembly Majority Floor Leader Alberto Torrico (D-Newark) calls it “brazen and blatant political extortion” and asks: “What kind of signal does it send to California that we’re going to reward someone who exploits the broken political system?”

The question is framed differently in the Senate, where the Rules Committee approved his nomination last week.

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