SANTA MARIA — Sen. Abel Maldonado crouched to desk level and, with a mischievous smile, enlisted the help of sixth-grader Michelle Grahame to sweat the governor over the state's looming budget cuts.
The 12-year-old was immersed in her computer animation project, an Earth-like blue sphere hovering behind a curiously grown-up message: "Please don't cut Education."
Maldonado, on a tour of Ralph Dunlap Elementary, persuaded her to tweak it to read: "Please don't cut Education Arnold." He left with a printout he promised to deliver to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is hashing over ways to close the state's estimated $2-billion budget gap.
"We're in some challenging times, but I've made a commitment not to cut education," Maldonado, a Republican, told school officials and PTA members after the tour. "We're going to have to get creative."
It was a gentle jab at Schwarzenegger, but Maldonado has crossed the governor and his party leadership before, earning the scorn of conservatives and Republican loyalists. One party official writing on a conservative blog declared that the senator, one of the few Latino Republicans in Sacramento, "is not one of us."
Those same maverick traits, however, have intrigued party moderates who are struggling to make the GOP more appealing to the fastest-growing segments of the California electorate: Latinos and independents.
"I just hope that we can come together as a party in our state," said Maldonado. "Not lose our principles or values but understand that this is a blue state, it is a Democrat state, and we need to come around on some issues to win in California."
Issues such as immigration, he said. Maldonado believes Republicans have committed political suicide by ratcheting up anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric -- alienating Latino voters, who account for an estimated 14% of the California electorate -- and screaming "amnesty!" whenever comprehensive immigration reform is discussed.
"Do they hate Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan gave amnesty in 1986 to a lot of foreigners in this country," Maldonado said. The 41-year-old senator said he would crack down on illegal immigrants and secure the border. But he added that the federal immigration system is broken and the country needs a guest worker program to help both immigrants and employers.
Maldonado, the son of a migrant farmworker turned multimillion-dollar businessman, had the personal appeal and political guile to win handily in a Democratic district in 2004. He is the only state senator running unopposed this election; however, a write-in campaign organized by Democrats could lead to his being challenged in November.
With his infectious smile and knack for chumming up even the most wary stranger, he exudes a "by golly" charm that even his detractors find hard to dismiss. Underneath that veneer, however, are the hardened memories of a farmworker's son. As a schoolboy, he stood in line for the free lunch program and, he said, was razzed by classmates for having strawberry stains on his pants, a residue from the fields.
He said his experience has given him a richer perspective on the working poor and helps explain why he wasn't fazed by the conservative outcry when he carried the governor's 2006 bill to increase the minimum wage. Republican Assemblyman Tony Strickland attacked Maldonado on the issue when they both ran for state controller in 2006. Maldonado lost the GOP primary and Strickland lost in the general election.
"At the end of the day, I vote for what I believe is right for the people of California, not for my party," Maldonado said. "My father came to America as a bracero. He didn't have a penny in his pocket, but he had values -- values my party has lost: fiscal responsibility, ethics and hard work."
Maldonado lays the blame mostly on Republicans in Washington, who he said have gone on a spending binge. But, he said, the GOP in California has been damaged by the partisan backbiting that consumes Sacramento.
"If you want to run a successful business in California, or in America, there needs to be some compromise," said Maldonado, who runs the financial side of the family farm (his brother serves as president). "The best price for a box of strawberries is the one that gets it on the truck. Because I can ask for $10 all day long, but they're going to rot if I don't sell them."
Maldonado has cut a paradoxical political path through Sacramento, to which the avid pilot commutes in his single-engine Mooney M20E. Business supporters hailed him for backing workers' compensation reform, then castigated him for sponsoring the minimum-wage increase. Conservatives were pleased with his vote against gay marriage but riled by his support for banning .50-caliber rifles.