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Lieutenant governor candidates have more sizzle than the job

The post is largely ceremonial, but rivals Gavin Newsom, of San Francisco gay-marriage fame, and incumbent Abel Maldonado, a Republican who crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats on a state budget, are taking the campaign seriously.

October 07, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

One candidate is a far-left Bay Area mayor with a polarizing political history, a hefty war chest and national name recognition. The other is a Republican moderate with less money, a lower profile and the incumbency.


FOR THE RECORD: An article in the Oct. 7 LATExtra section about the lieutenant governor race described a September trip to Asia by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a fundraising trip. It was a trade mission.

They're vying for a largely ceremonial office that some government watchers have said should be abolished. This year, the candidates in the lieutenant governor's race have more sizzle than the office at stake.

Polls show that Gavin Newsom, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, has a slight edge over Abel Maldonado, a three-term state senator from Santa Maria who was appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and installed in April.

When the two meet in Sunnyvale to debate on Thursday, their differences will be on display.

Newsom, who won the endorsement of President Clinton during last year's gubernatorial primary before dropping out for lack of time and campaign funds, "is being groomed to be a future star of the Democratic Party," according to Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley. Maldonado, on the other hand, has tepid party support after breaking with Republicans in several high-profile moves.

Last year, Maldonado provided Democrats in the state Senate the key vote for the budget, which included a tax increase that most Republicans opposed. Last month, as acting governor while Schwarzenegger was out of the country, Maldonado declined to appeal for the state after a federal judge overturned Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that voters passed in 2008.

His reluctance infuriated some social conservatives and prompted Republican Karen England, who heads Capitol Resource Institute, a conservative San Francisco think tank and lobbying firm, to wage a write-in campaign for lieutenant governor. She has won the support of several "tea party" groups.

Maldonado's fraught relationship with Republicans may have hurt his fundraising efforts. He has collected $1.4 million to Newsom's $2.5 million, according to campaign reports filed with the state.

Defending his budget vote last year, he said he wasn't happy with the plan.

"But California was on the verge of bankruptcy, construction jobs were going to stop, taxpayers were getting IOUs for refunds, schools were not being funded and — bottom line — we were holding Californians hostage," he said.

Now, the qualities that were a burden for Maldonado during the primary may be advantages as he tries to appeal to the 21% of California voters registered as independents or with a minor party.

Polls show that Newsom has strong support from Democrats. And he has earned endorsements from environmental groups and unions for his role in bringing green jobs to San Francisco and starting a healthcare plan for uninsured residents.

But his reputation as a leading liberal could hurt his campaign for statewide office. Outside of San Francisco, Newsom may be best known as the mayor who began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. The move made him a hero to gay rights groups but drew rage from many on the political right.

"That's how most people in the state first paid attention to me," Newsom said recently. In order to win statewide office, "I have to work through that," he said.

A September Field poll found that 41% of likely voters had an unfavorable view of Newsom, and 29% of voters had a favorable view.

The same poll found that 17% viewed Maldonado unfavorably, with 36% having a favorable view. Nearly half of voters said they didn't know enough about Maldonado to form an opinion.

When Schwarzenegger left the state for a fundraising trip to Asia in September, Maldonado took full advantage of the chance to introduce himself to voters.

He signed a $1.2-billion education bill and a series of government reform measures in the city of Bell. And when a natural-gas explosion destroyed 53 homes in San Bruno, Maldonado declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County.

His role in San Bruno, which included appearances in newspapers and on CNN, may have boosted his profile among voters. A Field Poll in July found that Newsom held a nine-point advantage over Maldonado; but Field's September Poll, taken after the San Bruno disaster, found that Newsom's lead had narrowed to four points.

California's lieutenant governor sits on the State Lands Commission and the boards of the UC and Cal State systems. He or she also chairs the state Economic Development Commission and is president of the Senate, voting only to break a legislative tie.

Newsom has promised to fight oil drilling off the coast and to bring new jobs to the state by shifting to a green energy economy. Maldonado says he would help bring investors to California as chairman of the economic commission. And he has promised to cut the costs of the lieutenant governor's office.

Like other down-ticket contests, the lieutenant governor's race has been overshadowed by this year's record-shattering gubernatorial contest. But Newsom and Maldonado both have come out swinging, with fierce campaign attack ads.

Other factors, too, may shake up the race.

Because his confirmation as lieutenant governor occurred after November's ballots were set, Maldonado is not listed on the ballot as the incumbent. And it remains to be seen whether the controversy over GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman's employment of an illegal immigrant will have an effect on other contests.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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