Dismissed as obscure and irrelevant, ‘lite gov’ draws new attention

A News Analysis

California is still reeling from the deepest recession since the great depression. The state Capitol is gripped by gridlock as the state’s budget deficit hovers at $20 billion. It is also home to one of the most high-profile political races in the country, featuring a billionaire, a multi-millionaire and a former governor and presidential candidate. And yet, the drama that gripped the Capitol this week was the ongoing fight over who would be lieutenant governor for the next 10 months.

Between the bizarre quasi-confirmation and reappointment of Sen. Abel Maldonado while Schwarzenegger was in Canada last week, to the headline-grabbing equivocation of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom about whether or not he will seek the gig this fall, the lieutenant governor’s job has gotten more headlines over the last week than any time since Mike Curb appointed judges to the bench while then-Gov. Jerry Brown was out of the state.

While it has been fascinating to watch Abel Maldonado’s political career turned into a partisan football, the stakes are relatively low in this ongoing political drama. Sure, the lieutenant governor sits on the Ocean Protection Council, the Agriculture-Water Transition Task Force, and the State Lands Commission. He or she also is  a member of both the UC Board of Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees. And though the job title makes it sound like the second-most important political office in the state,  the office is one of reliatively low importance or responsibility compared with other statewide office like attorney general, treasurer, controller or insurance commissioner.

Just listen to the candidates for the job try to rationalize why they want it in the first place.

During his confirmation process earlier this month, Maldonado said he wanted the post to help promote economic recovery.

“I want to make the lieutenant governor’s office the public face for job creation,” he told the senate Rules Committee. Now, just what the lieutenant governor can do to that end is unclear. The lieutenant governor does serve as the chairman for the Commission for Economic Development, which holds quarterly meetings about how to promote “the development of a financially and environmentally sustainable growth economy for California.”

Newsom, meanwhile, says he wants to turn the job into a bully pulpit to promote the interests and issues for cities and counties. This from the man whose political consultant once dispelled rumors of Newsom running for lieutenant governor as only being possible if Newsom were abducted by “one-eyed aliens from Pluto.” That was back when Garry South was running Newsom’s gubernatorial camapign.

Now, of course, South is chief strategist for another lieutenant governor candidate, Democrat Janice Hahn.

For Schwarzenegger, the lieutenant governor’s office has been a convenient and frequent foil. From the very beginning, when the office was held by Schwarzenegger’s recall rival Cruz Bustamante, through Democrat John Garamendi’s tenure, Schwarzenegger has been dismissive of the office.

Garamendi, who has highly critical of Schwarzenegger while in the lieutenant governor’s office, saw his budget slashed by 62 percent last year, from $2.6 million to about $966,000. When asked about the cuts at the time, Schwarzenegger’s finance director, Mike Genest defended them in the context of the state’s larger budget deficits, saying, “The lieutenant governor’s duties just really are a lower priority.”

This year, the governor has increased the lieutenant governor’s office budget slightly, proposing just more than $1 million be spent to fund nine employees in the office.

But this year, the lieutenant governor’s office has been a political gift for Schwarzenegger. It has allowed the governor to talk about something other than the state budget — something the governor and his advisers have wanted desperately for months, if not years. And it allows him to paint the Legislature — particularly the state Assembly — as a fundamentally partisan body unwilling to confirm a lawmaker who has crossed party lines on key votes in the past.

The wrangling has led some to call for the post’s elimination altogether. A proposed consitutional amendment by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, would abolish the office entirely and turn its duties over to the secretary of state. The measure is co-sponsored by Democrat Charles Calderon, D-Whittier.

“Now that’s what I call bipartisan cooperation,” Calderon said while speaking out against Maldonado’s confirmation on the Assembly floor last week.

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