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Maldonado's nomination makes both parties squirm

Democrats and Republicans have reasons to oppose his elevation to lieutenant governor. But such opposition is politically perilous.

November 29, 2009|By Cathleen Decker
  • Moderate Republican Abel Maldonado's appointment as lieutenant governor to replace John Garamendi, who was elected to Congress, needs legislative approval.
Moderate Republican Abel Maldonado's appointment as lieutenant… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

In his bodybuilding days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was known for playing mind games on his opponents to knock them off stride. He may have done the same thing last week when he nominated Abel Maldonado, a Republican state senator from Santa Maria, as the next lieutenant governor.

Among the legislators who must confirm his appointment for it to stick, some Republicans revolted, still angry that Maldonado had broken from their ranks to endorse tax hikes favored by Schwarzenegger and Democrats in past budgets. Some Democrats signaled that they too may balk rather than give Republicans the seat going into the 2010 statewide elections.

But both major parties have reason to squirm. Quite apart from the particulars of their opposition, the confirmation sets up the possibility that the parties may engage in a contentious confirmation battle centered on a Latino, a representative of California's fastest-growing ethnic demographic and one courted by both of them.

In naming Maldonado last week, Schwarzenegger paid tribute to his "long, distinguished history of public service" and his "reputation as a pragmatist, a reformer and a relentless advocate for his constituents."

But the theatrics of the formal announcement played strongly on the field of ethnic politics. It was held at a park that, in 1970, welcomed a massive anti-Vietnam War demonstration that spiraled into a riot. Three people were killed, among them Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar, hit by a tear gas projectile fired by a sheriff's deputy. Then it was Laguna Park; now it is Ruben Salazar Park, namesake of an icon.

Schwarzenegger and Maldonado spoke in front of a mural depicting the struggle for power, even as the governor repeatedly brought up Maldonado's background.

"Sen. Maldonado is the son of a Mexican migrant farm worker. . . . His father is standing right over there with Abel's mother," the governor said.

"Abel is a really great inspiration to a lot of young people in this state, especially Latinos," he added, then underscored the political importance once more: "In fact it has been over 130 years since a Hispanic Republican held state office in California."

With tears occasionally welling in his eyes, Maldonado recalled a childhood spent picking strawberries alongside his parents. And now, he marveled, he was accepting the nomination for lieutenant governor. "Only in America can that happen," Maldonado said.

He used to go to the park in the summer, Maldonado said, when his parents, too poor to afford a baby sitter, dropped him off at his aunt's house on South Indiana Street. "And we're back here again because I will never forget where I come from," he said.

Against that emotional backdrop, legislators cast about for the most beneficial path. But the signals clash.

For Democrats, is it better to risk offending Latino and independent voters -- who may appreciate Maldonado's occasional walks across the aisle -- to make sure that the seat is not held by a Republican going into the 2010 statewide elections? Does it help that one of the Democrats running for lieutenant governor in 2010, state Sen. Dean Florez, is also Latino? Is it better to allow Maldonado to advance into the job -- held by Democrat John Garamendi before his recent election to Congress -- in hopes of taking over his seat in the Senate?

For Republicans, is the risk of alienating Latinos more important -- or less -- than letting Maldonado's apostasy on taxes go unpunished? Would warfare over his nomination be an unneeded distraction going into state races in which the party is already an underdog?

Voter registration figures bear out the increasing heft of Latinos in California, as if any more evidence were needed. Latinos make up 37% of the state's population and 21% of its registered voters, according to a Field Poll study of the electorate. Almost three in 10 Democrats are Latino, the study found. Among Republicans, the numbers are rising dramatically, to 13% from only 4% three decades ago.

Latinos hardly operate in lock step. But even in these polarized times, groups that have been on the outside often feel sympathy for their own.

That was demonstrated in the 2003 recall, when then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante tried to block Schwarzenegger's ascension to the governorship. Overall, Schwarzenegger won 49% of the vote to Bustamante's 32%. But among Latinos, a Times exit poll found, Bustamante won 56% of the vote to Schwarzenegger's 32%.

Arguably, much of that difference stemmed from the greater Democratic registration among Latinos. But Republicans too have paid attention to the changes afoot.

In a memo to Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner last year, strategist Mike Murphy argued for a "strong, long-term effort" to win Latino support.

"Spanish lessons, a summer immersion trip to Mexico?" wrote Murphy, who Tuesday joined opponent Meg Whitman's campaign. "Don't laugh, this could be a great move."

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