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California Legislature's new look: ugly

The vote on whether to confirm moderate Republican Abel Maldonado as lieutenant governor shows Assembly Democrats' vow to change their ways was just so much window-dressing.

February 15, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • State Sen. Abel Maldonado, left, and Assembly Speaker-elect John Perez talk Thursday after the Assembly failed to confirm Maldonado as lieutenant governor. The governor re-nominated him Friday.
State Sen. Abel Maldonado, left, and Assembly Speaker-elect John Perez… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

From Sacramento — Very, very ugly. So much for a new-look Legislature.

You remember, the Legislature that had recognized its rotten public image and vowed to clean itself up. To reform.

Just where are those promised reforms, anyway? A lot of talk. The lawmakers apparently can't agree on many.

Never mind. Even if some internal operating procedures ultimately change, partisanship and pettiness haven't -- at least in the Assembly, among Democrats.

Give the Senate a pass -- both parties. They performed downright statesmanlike last week in voting to confirm moderate Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria as lieutenant governor.

"There is a time for us to be partisan," Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) noted in the brief floor debate. "That is during an election."

When the Legislature is deciding whether to confirm a governor's nominee to a vacant statewide office, Cedillo asserted, the criteria are "firm but modest: Is the person competent? Does he comply with the law?" And Maldonado certainly meets both tests, Cedillo said.

Maldonado was nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and renominated Friday -- to fill a 10-month vacancy.

In the Assembly, Republicans also rose above the shallow sludge and voted for Maldonado, ignoring conservative GOP activists around the state who had been urging his rejection.

Assembly Democrats? Shameful and embarrassing. Maybe not in their eyes. But they made the Republicans look extraordinarily responsible.

My favorite exchange began with a preposterous argument by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Alameda). He contended that Maldonado shouldn't be confirmed because he's running this year for a full term as lieutenant governor and wouldn't be able to spend enough time on the job -- a job that has the fewest duties of any state officeholder.

Californians "deserve someone in that office who can dedicate the time and energy to helping us solve some of these problems. . . who would come to this body and help us with a myriad of complicated issues," Swanson asserted.

Actually, if a lieutenant governor ever showed up in a legislative chamber except on ceremonial occasions, he'd be considered an intruder and probably escorted back to his own quarters by a sergeant at arms.

Swanson concluded that the governor should nominate someone who "is not distracted by politics and the political season."

Chief GOP Whip Nathan Fletcher of San Diego, a rookie rising star at 33, calmly responded: "If the qualification to be in office and deal with problems is that you are not running for office, then almost this entire body would be disqualified."

Swanson himself is running for reelection.

Fletcher pointed out that the Legislature's approval rating is near rock bottom. "Today we have an opportunity to demonstrate," he said, "that from time to time we can set aside petty differences, we can set aside personalities, we can set aside partisanship."

All but one Republican thought that made sense. But only eight Democrats did. Maldonado's confirmation drew just 37 votes, falling four short of the simple majority necessary.

Nobody argued that Maldonado wasn't qualified. The Assembly Democratic opposition boiled down to politics and payback.

Democrats didn't want to bestow Maldonado with the ballot title of incumbent lieutenant governor. That seemed extreme, given he would have to survive a Republican primary before it mattered to them. And even if he did, he'd need to beat the odds against a Republican winning a down-ticket general election race in a Democratic state.

More disturbing was that Democrats -- particularly Latinos -- were adamant against placing a Republican Latino so high in the political pecking order.

"A lot of Latino Democrats don't want a Republican Latino in a high-profile office," Cedillo told me. "And a lot of non-Latino Democrats don't want that either. It potentially could make Republicans more acceptable to Latino voters."

Maldonado says that Assembly Speaker-elect John Perez (D-Los Angeles) told him he'd be confirmed if he weren't running for the office.

"Partisan, partisan, partisan -- bickering, bickering," Maldonado adds. "It's a broken system."

But many legislators just don't like him, despite a pleasant personality and American-dream story of an immigrant family rising from field hands to wealthy farm owners.

For one thing, he lobbied the state Citizens Compensation Commission to cut the lawmakers' pay, which it did by 18% -- not a smart move if you're trying to get along with your co-workers.

And while Senate Democrats praised Maldonado's courage in siding with them on risky tax and budget votes last year, Assembly Democrats denounced him for extracting concessions. One was placement of an open primary proposal on the June ballot. Partisan politicians hate an open primary because it tends to help centrists, such as Maldonado.

"The people . . . loathe the kind of backroom deals that Sen. Maldonado and the governor have repeatedly cut," declared Perez, who fought Maldonado's confirmation.

Pure hypocrisy. Democrats signed off on those deals, too, and hold the keys to the Capitol's "back rooms."

One Assembly Democrat who voted for Maldonado was Jared Huffman of San Rafael.

"It's going to give us a black eye and is bad for Democrats," Huffman says of Maldonado's rejection. "It's one of those rare occasions when Republicans had cooler heads and resisted their worst partisan impulses. And we indulged in ours."


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