The leader of the state Senate said he had “grave doubts” over confirming Abel Maldonado as lieutenant governor, just minutes after Gov. Schwarzenegger formally tapped Maldonado to fill the vacancy.
“Confirming Senator Maldonado will necessitate a special election to fill his Senate seat,” Steinberg said in a statement Tuesday. “According to state elections officials, such an election would cost taxpayers more than $2 million. Rather than using taxpayer money to pay for an avoidable election, it may be wiser to use that $2 million to defray recent fee increases in our higher education system. For example, $2 million would significantly reduce the Winter/Spring 2010 fee increases for UC students, or it would cover the recent $6 per unit increase for 333,000 course units for community college students.”
Steinberg also questioned whether a gubernatorial appointee should take the job just months before voters will elect a new lieutenant governor.
Capitol Democrats said there was a more calculated political reason for not wanting to let Maldonado go. Democrats were humbled by this year’s election results in New Jersey and Virginia, and fear that 2010 could be a bad Democratic year. In addition, a low turn-out special election may make it tougher for a Democrat to win the 15th Senate District seat currently held by Maldonado.
Democrats have a slight 41-35 percent registration advantage in the district. Nearly 20 percent of the district’s voters are decline to state. The district has been home to moderate Republicans like Bruce McPherson, and overwhelming voted for Schwarzenegger over Phil Angelides in 2006 – 61 percent – 34 percent. But in 2004, John Kerry narrowly carried the district over George W. Bush – 52 percent – 46 percent.
Another factor to take into account: The district's boundaries will be redrawn based on the 2010 census, and the new lines will be in effect for the 2012 election.
If Maldonado were to be confirmed, Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee would be a candidate. Blakeslee has already opened an account to run for the seat in 2012, when Maldonado will be forced from the Senate by term limits.
Democrats mentioned as potential candidates include former Assemblymen Simon Salinas, D-Salinas, and John Laird, D-Santa Cruz.
But not confirming Maldonado carries political risks as well. Democrats have depended on Maldonado to break ranks with his party to support unpopular budgets. But Maldonado has been known to carry a political grudge, and if Steinberg leads the charge denying Maldonado’s promotion, it could hamper his ability to cajole Maldonado come budget time.
In 2006, after Maldonado had supported state budgets at Schwarzenegger’s urging, the senator lashed out at Schwarzenegger for not supporting him in a Republican primary for state controller. Maldonado lost the primary to Thousand Oaks Republican Tony Strickland, who is now also in the state Senate.
“"I kind of felt like I got left holding the bag," Maldonado told the Los Angeles Times after the 2006 election. "When he needs Latinos, Latinos are always there for him. When Latinos need him, the answer's been 'no.' "
Maldonado’s Capitol office referred all press inquiries to the governor’s office.
Steinberg’s comments Tuesday created a cloud of suspicion over Maldonado’s future. According to the Constitution, Maldonado cannot take office until his nomination is approved by both legislative houses, or until 90 days pass with no legislative action.
Either the Senate or the Assembly can reject the nomination.
Steinberg spokesman Nathan Barankin said Tuesday that the Senate would take up Maldonado’s nomination after the first of the year.
Schwarzenegger selected Maldonado Monday to fill the vacancy left by exiting Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who was elected to the House in a special election from the 10th Congressional District.
The Republican governor said Maldonado "has proven he has the strength and courage it takes to reach across the partisan divide and put the interests of Californians first, and he is absolutely the most qualified person to take on the role of lieutenant governor."
Schwarzenegger made the announcement on the Jay Leno Show on NBC – the same Hollywood forum that Schwarzenegger used to announce his decision to seek the governor's office in the 2003 recall election of former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.
The selection of Maldonado, 42, a wealthy farmer and maverick Republican who has been at odds with his own GOP colleagues over tax increases, surprised few in the Capitol: Maldonado had long been viewed as a likely choice to replace Garamendi, who during the past three decades had served as a member of the Assembly, a senator and – twice – as the state insurance commissioner before being elected lieutenant governor.
Schwarzenegger's decision culminated weeks of speculation in the Capitol as to whether the governor would appoint a Democrat or Republican to fill Garamendi's post. In the end, Schwarzenegger's choice is likely to anger some members in both major parties. Maldonado was one of a trio of Republicans who backed Democrats and the governor earlier this year on a tax-raising budget. That move drew fire from the GOP rank and file.
Schwarzenegger described Maldonado as a "true partner" in attempts to push through the governor's fiscal programs — programs that include tax hikes and which have drawn the wrath of many of the Capitol's Republicans.
"I congratulate Senator Abel Maldonado on his appointment," said Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth,
"As a valuable member of the Senate Republican Caucus, his skills and talents have made him a well qualified choice for the Governor to tap for statewide office. He will be an effective leader for California as Lieutenant Governor," he said.
But not all members of his caucus greeting Maldonado’s selection so warmly. Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, whom Maldonado had endorsed for lieutenant governor, lashed out at his Senate colleague Monday.
"I anticipate a rigorous confirmation process for this appointment and potentially an even more rigorous Republican primary for Lt. Governor,” Denham said. “It is difficult to see how a candidate who has voted for a massive tax increase could possibly win a statewide Republican primary."