It didn’t take long for the rare display of bipartisan cooperation that made Abel Maldonado lieutenant governor to totally collapse into a toxic, reeking heap of, um, bitter partisanship.
With two years remaining in the term the Santa Maria Republican won in the 15th State Senate District in 2008, GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger infuriated Democratic legislative leaders by scheduling the special election to succeed Maldonado in the doggiest days of summer.
The move triggered a fierce exchange of charges of political chicanery, at the same time it drew howls of protest from Central Coast election officials and, for good measure, resurrected a decades-old federal court case over voting rights for minorities.
So much for bipartisanship.
“It was a political play,” said former assemblymember John Laird, the early favorite among Democrats to succeed Maldo, of Schwarzenegger’s selection of surprising — and expensive — voting dates. “The Senate Republican leadership is attempting to advantage themselves in the special election.”
The governor ordered the 15th District general election voting held on August 17 — instead of consolidating it with the regular November 2 statewide ballot. Combined with a primary contest for the seat, scheduled on June 22, this means that each of the five counties in the sprawling, coastal 15th District — Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara — are on the hook for staging four elections in the space of five months.
As county election officials protested the combined extra costs of about $5 million — $1 million for Santa Barbara — Schwarzenegger blamed the Democrat-dominated Legislature for the dates. Charging they had dithered too long before confirming Maldonado, he noted that by the time they finally approved his nomination on April 25, it was legally too late to combine the first round of special election voting with the regular June 8 statewide primary.
Given that circumstance, he said it was preferable to hold the run-off round — necessary in the unlikely scenario of a candidate winning a majority in the first round — as early as possible, so that there will not be a vacant seat during the looming battle over the state budget. Under state election rules, that was August 17.
But Democrats insisted that Schwarzenegger’s decision was a cheap partisan trick to benefit GOP front-runner and Assemblymember Sam Blakeslee, R-S.L.O. Special elections are notoriously low-turnout affairs and often favor Republican candidates because their backers typically are more hardcore loyal voters; the Democrats, in the person of Laird, would stand a much better chance of capturing the swing district seat in November.
Blakeslee said he would try to get the state to reimburse the counties for the cost of the election, and his press secretary insisted that the dates are no big deal: “It’s not as important as people think it is,” spokesperson Kevin Spillane told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Ultimately, it comes down to the quality of candidates and their support in the district.”
As a political matter, the stakes in the race are high, because seizing it from Republican control would bring the Democrats within one vote of the two-thirds majority needed for budget votes in the Senate, in a year when they have opportunities elsewhere to pick up the crucial 27th vote.
Complicating the fight, a Democrat-backed federal lawsuit filed by three Monterey County voters last week charged that keeping the current dates would violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act. The county has a history of suppressing Latino and other minority voting and is under a court order mandating that any changes in its election rules be approved by a federal judge.
UPSET IN THE MAKING? In a sudden, dramatic turnaround, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has drawn almost even with Meg Whitman, the Republican front-runner for governor, who had been trouncing him in the polls by 40 points just a few weeks ago.
Poizner outperformed Whitman with an aggressive performance in a head-to-head debate two weeks ago in San Jose and since has been matching her exorbitant campaign spending out of his own personal fortune, bashing her in tough TV ads for her financial ties to scandal-tainted Goldman Sachs, being soft on illegal immigrants, and supporting liberal Democrats like Barbara Boxer in the past.
Says Poizner communications director Jarrod Agen: “The Whitman campaign has become a very expensive Humpty Dumpty, and all of the Goldman Sachs money and all the hacks in Sacramento can’t put Meg’s campaign back together again.”