Sen. Abel Maldonado, left, gave Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg a playful pinch on the cheek back in July, but things are a little testier after Maldonado’s nomination to be lieutenant governor.
Now the infighting begins.
Democrats fired back only minutes after Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado was appointed Tuesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill the vacant office of lieutenant governor.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg questioned the cost: Wouldn’t California be better served spending $2 million to defray college tuition rather than for a special election to fill Maldonado’s Senate seat should lawmakers confirm him?
“It may be both fiscally and politically prudent to permit the people to make their own selection for this statewide office next year and avoid the expense of a costly special election,” Steinberg said in a written statement.
Matt David, Schwarzenegger’s communications director, countered by accusing Steinberg of a double standard, saying that the Sacramento Democrat has “had no problem” endorsing Senate Democrats for higher office despite prospects of a special election.
“If Senator Steinberg is concerned about state revenues and college tuition hikes, he should stop fighting his own pay cut,” David added, referring to a letter sent to Attorney General Jerry Brown by legislative administrators, not by Steinberg personally, to question the constitutionality of cuts in legislative benefits.
State cost is one of many battlegrounds surrounding Maldonado’s appointment.
“The political intrigue frankly is the compelling side of the story,” said Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks.
Democrats ultimately must wrestle with whether they stand more to gain than to lose by confirming the Santa Maria Republican to fill the seat vacated by Democrat John Garamendi’s election to Congress.
“It’s a political game of three-level chess, the way I see it,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist.
But Maldonado, in a telephone interview, said now is no time for partisanship.
“That’s the last thing we need; that’s what the people of California are fed up with – politics,” he said.
Schwarzenegger, who had announced Monday on “The Jay Leno Show” that Maldonado was his pick, made it official Tuesday at a 20-minute Los Angeles press conference.
The Republican governor described Maldonado as a pragmatist and reformer who “always chooses the people of California over politics.”
Maldonado, whose family owns a 6,000-acre farm, said he has fulfilled the American Dream by rising from humble beginnings as the son of immigrant field workers from Mexico to be nominated for the statewide post.
“All I can say is, only in America,” he said.
Maldonado’s confirmation is clouded by pressure from candidates in both parties who want to run next year for lieutenant governor, and from conservative Republicans who felt double-crossed this year by Maldonado’s vote to support a budget containing billions in tax increases.
Adding to the political mystique, Democrats, in confirming Maldonado, would free a moderate state Senate seat – from Santa Barbara to Santa Clara counties – that potentially could be wrested from the GOP next year.
Democrats currently hold 25 of 40 Senate seats, just two shy of the supermajority needed to raise taxes, approve a budget or override vetoes.
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist, said his party should confirm Maldonado.
“To pick up a Senate seat in exchange for a do-nothing job that usually leads to further obscurity is a good trade,” he said.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Maldonado’s district by 6 percentage points. President Barack Obama attracted 59 percent of the district’s vote last year.
“This could be a two-fer,” South said. “The Democrats could pick up another vote in the Senate, and we could win the lieutenant governorship back in 2010.”
But Democrats also must ponder the possibility that Maldonado could be replaced in an off-year election with low voter turnout by a more conservative Republican, such as current Assembly GOP leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, a development that could make it even harder to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget.
“There’s no guarantee you’d take the seat,” and assuming that risk while giving the GOP a statewide office would be a “high price to pay,” said John Burton, state Democratic Party chairman.
Maldonado, if confirmed, would serve as governor in Schwarzenegger’s absence and could cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. He would serve on panels ranging from the Lands Commission to the University of California board of regents. His salary would be $130,490.
Sen. Dean Florez, a Shafter Democrat expected to run for lieutenant governor, said that appointing a Republican to the post “only complicates and heightens the partisan divide.”
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass was noncommittal, saying “the Assembly will give this nomination the full and fair consideration it deserves.”
Maldonado, 42, would be the first Latino Republican in more than 130 years to hold statewide office.
Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth praised Maldonado’s appointment.
But some GOP lawmakers criticized the choice of Maldonado, who bucked the party on raising taxes after extracting concessions, including eliminating a proposed 12-cent gas tax hike and placing measures onto the ballot to create open primaries in state elections and to ban legislative raises in years when the state is in deficit.
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, said that Maldonado’s nomination makes him dependent upon Democrats, who could push for a tax hike during the 90-day period before which they must act on his appointment.
“It’s basically ‘let’s make a deal’ for enlarging government,” DeVore said.
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