For state Senator Abel Maldonado, the spectacle of the bitter partisan battle that sunk his nomination to be California’s new lieutenant governor carried one, fundamental message about Sacramento: “The Legislature is broken,” he said after his defeat. “It’s chaos.”

Capitol Letters

Assemblymember Pedro Nava, one of the leaders of the Democratic forces that tanked Republican Maldonado’s chance, read things very differently: “There was no chaos,” he said, “only outrage.”

The conflicting views of Santa Barbara County’s two most prominent Capitol politicians reflected more than the partisan polarization over Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bid to appoint Maldonado to finish the uncompleted term of Democrat John Garamendi, who recently was elected to Congress. The brawl that erupted over the nomination of Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) also exposed deeper fault lines that made the fight a kind of political proxy war, just nine months before a crucial statewide election.

At first glance, the lieutenant governor’s office is an unlikely prize for the kind of go-to-the-mattresses combat that broke out last week. The office, with its relatively scant $11 million budget, is largely ceremonial, with the notable exceptions of its seat on the powerful State Lands Commission, and its governor-in-waiting constitutional standing, should the incumbent chief executive stop breathing.

Schwarzenegger tried to frame his Maldonado appointment as a means of introducing bipartisanship into the trench warfare of the Capitol, portraying the senator as a moderate largely because of some key votes he’s cast for budget plans that include tax increases. The votes, while earning Maldonado the enmity of fellow Republicans, won him little among many Democrats beyond a reputation as an opportunist. Last week, the Dems took the opportunity to deliver payback for Maldonado’s trade of his 2009 budget vote for a backroom deal that featured an agreement for a ballot initiative to authorize an “open primary” election system that Democrats fear could erode their majority status.

Fellow senators approved his nomination (in part because Democratic leaders see a chance to pick up his seat in a special election) but Assembly Democrats battered him, citing right-wing positions he’s taken on bills affecting abortion rights, the environment, and the health and safety of farmworkers, among other issues. When the deal went down, Maldonado won only eight Democrat votes, as 37 members of the 80-seat Assembly voted against him, with only 35 in favor.

Amid the warring over familiar matters of partisanship and the politics of personality, however, the Maldonado confirmation fight also was shaped by broader political forces:

• Latinos: In the generation since former Republican governor Pete Wilson rolled to reelection in 1994 on the strength of anti-immigrant Prop. 187, Latinos reliably and increasingly have backed Democrats. The potential emergence of Maldonado as a statewide leader offers the GOP a rare opportunity to showcase an attractive Latino politician who can demonstrate there is room in his party for California’s fastest growing demographic bloc. It’s no accident that the fierce opposition to Maldonado in the Assembly was led by prominent Latinos, including incoming Speaker John Pérez, Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, along with Nava: “A lot of Latino Democrats don’t want a Republican Latino in a high-profile office,” Democratic Senator Gil Cedillo told the L.A. Times. “And a lot of non-Latino Democrats don’t want that either. It potentially could make Republicans more acceptable to Latino voters.”

• Budget: As the Legislature and governor start to engage in yet another battle over California’s chronic deficits, the stinging defeat of Schwarzenegger’s nominee sent a strong signal that Assembly Democrats—the Capitol’s most liberal bloc—intend to take a harder line. Last year, Democrats were widely panned for caving to the governor and minority Republicans on billions of dollars in health and welfare cuts, a key factor in the abdication of outgoing Speaker Karen Bass.

• Midterm election: The upset victory in Massachusetts of Republican Scott Brown in the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat has spooked Democrats across the country. Voter anger about the recession, bank bailouts, and health care, among other issues, portend an anti-incumbent wave; in such an unsettled atmosphere, top Democrats—led by state Chairman John Burton—vehemently objected to turning over a statewide office long held by the party to a Republican.

Following last week’s Assembly vote against Maldonado, Schwarzenegger first tried to claim victory, saying the failure of Democrats to muster 41 opposition votes effectively approved the nomination. Quickly thinking better of that goofy stance, the governor now says he will resubmit the nomination, and attempt to round up the extra votes needed. Good luck with that.


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