Abel Maldonado, California’s former lieutenant governor, the Central Coast’s former assemblymember and state senator, and Santa Maria’s former mayor, was in Florida on Wednesday, reportedly interviewing with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss a possible appointment as Secretary of Agriculture. Maldonado — whose political ambitions have been all dressed up with no place to go since losing a high-stakes showdown with Lois Capps for Congress in 2012 — is one of five candidates vying for the position. Maldonado, whose family owns a sprawling farming operation in the Santa Maria Valley, would be the first Latino appointed to the Trump cabinet should he get the nod. To get the post, however, he will have to account for some critical remarks he made about Trump. Last July, Maldonado was one of several prominent California Hispanic business leaders to take issue with Trump’s harsh rhetoric regarding Mexican immigrants, including calling many “rapists.” America, the letter stated, needed a president who could unite the country. “You fail on all accounts,” it read. “As such, not only have you lost our respect and our buying power, but you have lost our vote.”
Efforts to contact Maldonado by deadline have not been successful. Maldonado was once the rising star within the constricted confines of California’s moderate Republican universe. He worked closely with former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to whose wagon he appeared to have been hitched. Maldonado sought to work across the aisle and for doing so was widely distrusted by all. In 2009, he cast the deciding ballot needed for a tax increase pushed by Democratic leadership. In exchange, he got the Democrats to place before state voters a ballot initiative that effectively rewrote the rules guiding primary elections. Under the changes championed by Maldonado, the top two vote-getters faced off in the November runoff regardless of party affiliation.
Maldonado’s moderation did not serve him well when facing off against Lois Capps in 2012, as many in the local and statewide Republican Party turned their backs on his campaign. Even so, he was designated by the national party as a “young gun,” meaning he’d been identified as a viable challenger going up against an entrenched incumbent. Whatever crossover appeal Maldonado possessed evaporated in the face of revelations detailing hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars’ worth of unpaid taxes. Maldonado insisted those taxes were in dispute, but the reports were damaging and he remained on the defensive. After losing to Capps, Maldonado toyed with running for governor in 2014, but he backed out of that race early in the year.
Also vying for the post is former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, former Texas A&M president Elsa Murano, former Texas comptroller Susan Combs, and current Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller. Miller, according to Politico, has courted controversy, referring to Syrian refugees as “rattlesnakes” on his Facebook page, using the “c” word on Twitter about Hillary Clinton on Twitter — he blamed a staff member for the posting, which was subsequently taken down — and was under investigation for using taxpayer dollars to fly to Oklahoma to receive a cure-all cocktail of legal drugs and vitamins known as a “Jesus Shot.”
Maldonado is one of several Santa Barbara County residents — current or recent — making the A-list for the new Trump administration. Colony Capital’s Thomas Barrack — also owner of Happy Canyon Vineyards — is in charge of Trump’s inaugural celebration; Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE and until a few months ago a Montecito resident, has been nominated Secretary of Labor; and Montana Congressmember Ryan Zinke — whose wife, Lolita Hand Zinke, grew up in Santa Barbara and whose family still owns property here — is likely to become Secretary of the Interior.