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Maldonado steps up

As lieutenant governor, he led the state's response to the San Bruno disaster, providing the kind of response Californians expect, even in tough economic times.

September 12, 2010|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

No one would have wished for such an opportunity, but one certainly came Abel Maldonado's way last week when a PG&E gas line blew up in San Bruno, taking with it dozens of homes and, most horribly, several lives.

By a quirk of timing, Maldonado was, when the blast occurred Thursday evening, the state's highest ranking official. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed Maldonado to the job of lieutenant governor last fall, was en route to Asia as the fires raged. The unelected Maldonado was, thus, acting governor.

So it fell to Maldonado to officially declare a state of emergency Thursday night. And it fell to Maldonado to explain things Friday at press conferences and in interviews. There he was on CNN, at 3 a.m. local time, answering to the title "Governor" and chatting on a first-name basis with the hosts. And hours later, he was front and center at the command post, declaring to a local, state and national audience what officialdom knew as the skies lightened and the awful search for more victims was renewed.

It brought to mind two truths for this unpredictable season. First, for all the planning that can go into political campaigns like the one Maldonado is currently embroiled in, fate sometimes plays an outsized role. Second, San Bruno is a reminder of California's love-hate relationship with government. Even with all the demands that government downsize itself, Californians in a crunch expect government employees to come to their rescue, be they firefighters or emergency organizers or the bureaucrats who will make sure the money is there to clear the wreckage. Or the acting governor.

Not many Californians, truth be told, could have named the man on the television screen. In a Field Poll taken last July, Republican Maldonado trailed in the race for lieutenant governor behind San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the Democratic nominee.

Newsom was by far the better known, though sometimes to his detriment. Twenty-six percent of likely November voters had a favorable view of Newsom, and 41% an unfavorable one.

A similar 25% of likely voters felt favorably about Maldonado, with only 12% unfavorable. Although that gave him a better image, ratio-wise, than the polarizing mayor, it came about because of a whopping difficulty: Two-thirds of Californians didn't know enough about Maldonado to figure whether they liked him or not.

In part that is because of Maldonado's pedigree: He comes from Santa Maria in Central California, where he has not been blessed with the big-media-market footprint that attaches to politicians from Los Angeles or San Francisco. He has not even been wholly beloved within his own party, substantial elements of which resent his past votes with Schwarzenegger on tax issues and his chiding of party activists on the subject of immigration.

And part of it is the job, lieutenant governor, which returns little in the way of public notice unless the governor is away and disaster hits, as it did Thursday.

Maldonado had already signaled his intent to make the most of his acting governorship. Plans were in the works for him, in Schwarzenegger's stead, to sign popular bills. Possibilities included measures meant to prevent future circumstances like those in Bell, the southeastern Los Angeles County city that this year has become shorthand for government flabbiness and public employee greed.

Bell's sins — paying the city manager twice the salary of the president of the United States and boosting property tax levels unfairly, among other things — have already been the subject of scorn this election year. Republican candidate for governor Meg Whitman aired ads accusing her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, of committing equal atrocities when he was mayor of Oakland, though she relied largely on unproven allegations and out-of-context data.

She claimed, for example, that Brown had boosted the number of city employees making $200,000 annually by 700%. Actually, most of that increase, from five employees to 42, arose from back payments of overtime to city employees who had been shortchanged previously by accounting errors. Most of those employees were firefighters, whose pay, pensions and benefits Whitman has sworn to protect as governor.

With the details unmentioned in ads, however, the shorthand holds — until, that is, the state or one of its locales is in the grip of a problem that only government, with its resources, has the capacity to handle.

So it was that Maldonado took to the microphone on Friday morning and ticked off all the things government was bringing to the table: 67 pieces of fire equipment, air tankers, a helicopter, bulldozers, canine recovery teams, 30 more engines en route....

The state and federal emergency agencies were kicking in money to help pay for the firefighting effort and the recovery, he added, and it's a good thing they were: The San Bruno Fire Department has suffered budget cuts, as have many departments in many cities.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, for his part, approved.

"Glad I left the state in good hands," he tweeted from somewhere in the distance.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com.

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek

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