State Senator Abel Maldonado from Santa Maria was sworn in as California’s first Latino Republican Lieutenant Governor since 1874, 156 days after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first nominated him for the post. Although the post is widely dismissed as being almost totally irrelevant, Maldonado’s path to the second-highest elected job in the state has been fraught with intense peril and controversy every step of the way.
As a moderate Republican, Maldonado has been reviled by his own party for supporting a tax increase proposed by Schwarzenegger last fiscal year. Key GOP leaders vehemently opposed tax increases of any kind. At the same, Maldonado made few friends with Democrats — who control a majority of both houses in Sacramento — because in exchange for his support for the tax increase, he demanded, and got, an open-primary initiative (Prop 14) placed on the ballot this June. At the time, Assemblymember Pedro Nava, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, accused Maldonado of political extortion. Both major parties bitterly oppose the open primary initiative, which Maldonado claims will effectively diminish the partisan gridlock freezing Sacramento by making primary contests more winnable by moderate candidates rather than extremists. In addition, third party advocates have complained Prop 14 — which would pit the top two primary election vote getters against one another in the run-off, regardless of party affiliations — will concentrate power in hands of the two major parties rather than expanding the prism of political opportunity.
As Lieutenant Governor, Maldonado will serve on the State Lands Commission, where he will wield one of three key ballots to decide the fate of the controversial PXP oil development, proposed in state waters off the coast of Lompoc. This proposal has divided longtime allies within the environmental movement, pitting the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Get Oil Out, and Citizens Planning Association — which support it on the grounds that it will bring early closure to an offshore oil operation that could otherwise continue indefinitely — against many statewide environmental organizations and Nava, who counter the deal sets a dangerous precedent and could open up the entire coast up to further oil operations. Although Schwarzenegger has gone to great lengths to get PXP — and the $1.4 billion it promises the cash-strapped state — approved, seeking to by-pass normal approval processes, Maldonado insists he remains opposed. “Does PXP propose to bring the platforms down?” he asked. “I don’t think so. I want a guarantee.” Nava has highlighted the oil derrick disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to underscore why PXP needs to be stopped. The EDC’s David Landecker asked, “Do you want an oil operation to shut down and go away in 14 years or dribble along for 40? Because the longer it’s there, the greater the chances for a major disaster.”
While the PXP debate promises to continue indefinitely, Maldonado’s political future remains anything but certain. In the June primary, he’s running against fellow Republican Senator Sam Aanestad. Should Maldonado prevail, he’ll have to face either San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome or Los Angeles politico Janice Hahn in November just to keep his seat. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has scheduled a special election for this August to replace Maldonado in the state Senate in order to have a full compliment of legislators during budget deliberations.. Although the special election is estimated to cost the state budget — now $20 billion overdrawn — $2.5 million, political strategists reckon Republican candidates stand a better chance then than in November, when Democratic turn-out is expected to be higher. Running for the Senate seat is Democrat John Laird, a popular liberal from Monterey, and Republican Sam Blakeslee, an equally popular moderate Assembly member from San Luis Obispo. Should Laird win the seat, Democrats would be one vote shy from holding a two-thirds majority, which, for the first time ever, would make them immune from Republican veto threats.