With Appointment as Lt. Governor, Abel Maldonado to Become California’s Highest Ranking Latino

Fighting For California's Future by Senator Maldonado.

(Photo: Abel Maldonado/Flickr)

Abel Maldonado, a California state senator and the son of Mexican immigrant farmers, has been appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the state’s lieutenant governor.

Schwarzenegger made the announcement Monday night on the Jay Leno Show (yes, not many people can say that, especially a son of immigrants). After former Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, who was also the first Latino speaker of the State Assembly, dropped from the face of the Earth following a lackluster run for the governorship in 2003, no Latino has come as close to the state’s top political spot.

Maldonado, if confirmed by the legislature, will serve the remainder of the term of Democrat John Garamendi, who was recently elected to Congress. If the legislature does not reject his appointment within 90 days, Maldonado will be the highest ranking Latino in California and will have gone farther than any Latino Republican in the state government.

Maldonado, 42, entered the national spotlight in 2000, when he was asked by then-presidential candidate George W. Bush to give the first ever Spanish- language speech at a national party convention in prime time. Maldonado’s speech was full of symbolism about immigrants and their achievements after much effort and hard work. It was the American Dream story.

He has lived that story. His family came from Mexico and bought a small family farm in Santa Maria, growing strawberries. Returning home after college, he helped expand the farm to a large operation employing 250 people. At age 26 he ran for the Santa Maria city council out of frustration because he could not get a permit to build a cooling facility on the farm. Later he became the city’s mayor, and in 1998, he won an assembly seat in a moderate district that represents northern Santa Barbara County. He became a state senator in 2004.

Maldonado is a moderate Republican, who more than once has voted against his own party and is despised by the Republican base, in much the same way that Governor Schwarzenegger is. And that is part of the governor’s political calculation in appointing Maldonado.

The governor appears to have forgiven Maldonado for saying, in 2006, that Schwarzenegger “did not care about Latinos” because he did not back him strongly in his primary run for state controller. The governor would rather remember the times that Maldonado helped him by voting for his priorities against his own party.

Last February Maldonado struck a deal to provide the lone vote needed to pass the state budget if lawmakers put an initiative on the ballot to institute open primaries in California, which allow primary voters to cross party lines. Moderates like Maldonado benefit from open primaries, especially moderates with a Latino last name. The initiative is now on the ballot for June 2010.

In his announcement, the governor called Maldonado “a terrific, loyal man that has worked very hard in public service. But he’s also into bipartisanship and post-partisanship, so he can cross the aisle. He makes decisions based on what’s best for the people rather than what’s best for the party.”

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says that the appointment “was a reward for Maldonado’s loyalty in sticking his neck out for the governor. The governor has nothing to fear from the right wing of the Republican party, they have made it quite clear they don’t accept either of them.”

His appointment sets up other political calculations for both Republicans and Democrats. As an incumbent, Maldonado will be a strong candidate for the lieutenant governor seat in next year’s election. Other politicians who are potentially running for the seat, including two Republicans and a Democratic senator, have said they would try to keep him from taking office, but would look to their caucuses for guidance.

The previous lt. governor was a Democrat, and they would surely like to keep it in the party. But it is an inconsequential and largely ceremonial position. For Democrats it may be more important to let Maldonado take the position and grab his senate seat in a district they could easily win with a strong candidate. Also, if they reject Maldonado they run the risk of being seen as attacking a Latino.

“Are Democrats going to turn down the highest ranking Latino since Cruz Bustamante?” asks Jeffe. “If they allow Maldonado to go through, they will have a chance at a district they should have won,” she adds. A Democratic victory in Maldonado’s district would put them one vote away from having a two-thirds majority in the senate. “They won’t have to worry about the Republicans anymore,” says Alan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and publisher of the California Target Book, the state’s political bible.

Republican support for Maldonado would show California’s Latinos that the GOP is interested in the state’s largest minority, soon to be the majority. But Republicans in California “are more like a cult” says Hoffenblum. “He supported a budget with tax increases. They just can’t forgive that.”

In the end it may cost them politically.

Pilar Marrero is senior political writer for La Opinion. Contact her on www.twitter.com/PilarMarrero or pilarin28@sbcglobal.net.