Sen. Abel Maldonado crouched to desk level and, with a mischievous smile, enlisted the help of sixth-grader Michelle Grahame to sweat the governor over the state's looming budget cuts.
The 12-year-old was immersed in her computer animation project, an Earth-like blue sphere hovering behind a curiously grown-up message: "Please don't cut Education."
Maldonado, on a tour of Ralph Dunlap Elementary, persuaded her to tweak it to read: "Please don't cut Education Arnold." He left with a printout he promised to deliver to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is hashing over ways to close the state's estimated $2-billion budget gap.
"We're in some challenging times, but I've made a commitment not to cut education," Maldonado, a Republican, told school officials and PTA members after the tour. "We're going to have to get creative."
It was a gentle jab at Schwarzenegger, but Maldonado has crossed the governor and his party leadership before, earning the scorn of conservatives and Republican loyalists. One party official writing on a conservative blog declared that the senator, one of the few Latino Republicans in Sacramento, "is not one of us."
Those same maverick traits, however, have intrigued party moderates who are struggling to make the GOP more appealing to the fastest-growing segments of the California electorate: Latinos and independents.
"I just hope that we can come together as a party in our state," said Maldonado. "Not lose our principles or values but understand that this is a blue state, it is a Democrat state, and we need to come around on some issues to win in California."
Issues such as immigration, he said. Maldonado believes Republicans have committed political suicide by ratcheting up anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric -- alienating Latino voters, who account for an estimated 14% of the California electorate -- and screaming "amnesty!" whenever comprehensive immigration reform is discussed.
"Do they hate Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan gave amnesty in 1986 to a lot of foreigners in this country," Maldonado said. The 41-year-old senator said he would crack down on illegal immigrants and secure the border. But he added that the federal immigration system is broken and the country needs a guest worker program to help both immigrants and employers.
Maldonado, the son of a migrant farmworker turned multimillion-dollar businessman, had the personal appeal and political guile to win handily in a Democratic district in 2004. He is the only state senator running unopposed this election; however, a write-in campaign organized by Democrats could lead to his being challenged in November.
With his infectious smile and knack for chumming up even the most wary stranger, he exudes a "by golly" charm that even his detractors find hard to dismiss. Underneath that veneer, however, are the hardened memories of a farmworker's son. As a schoolboy, he stood in line for the free lunch program and, he said, was razzed by classmates for having strawberry stains on his pants, a residue from the fields.
He said his experience has given him a richer perspective on the working poor and helps explain why he wasn't fazed by the conservative outcry when he carried the governor's 2006 bill to increase the minimum wage. Republican Assemblyman Tony Strickland attacked Maldonado on the issue when they both ran for state controller in 2006. Maldonado lost the GOP primary and Strickland lost in the general election.
"At the end of the day, I vote for what I believe is right for the people of California, not for my party," Maldonado said. "My father came to America as a bracero. He didn't have a penny in his pocket, but he had values -- values my party has lost: fiscal responsibility, ethics and hard work."
Maldonado lays the blame mostly on Republicans in Washington, who he said have gone on a spending binge. But, he said, the GOP in California has been damaged by the partisan backbiting that consumes Sacramento.
"If you want to run a successful business in California, or in America, there needs to be some compromise," said Maldonado, who runs the financial side of the family farm (his brother serves as president). "The best price for a box of strawberries is the one that gets it on the truck. Because I can ask for $10 all day long, but they're going to rot if I don't sell them."
Maldonado has cut a paradoxical political path through Sacramento, to which the avid pilot commutes in his single-engine Mooney M20E. Business supporters hailed him for backing workers' compensation reform, then castigated him for sponsoring the minimum-wage increase. Conservatives were pleased with his vote against gay marriage but riled by his support for banning .50-caliber rifles.
His stand on the current budget crisis is no different. Maldonado opposes raising taxes, yet has joined noisy demonstrations outside the Capitol to protest cuts to education and parks. His solution: sell the California Lottery, which he believes could fetch the billions needed to close the state's shortfall.
It's a record that partisan purists criticize as blatantly opportunistic.
"Abel Maldonado is worthless," said Tom Hudson of Placer County, an outspoken conservative member of the California Republican Party's executive committee. "It seems like the Democrats can count on him for the important vote, and his constituents cannot."
Maldonado is perhaps best known for defying his Senate Republican colleagues last summer by voting with the Democrats to end the budget standoff.
"It was hard on him, but I got calls from conservatives in his district who said it was the right thing to do," said former GOP Senate Leader Dick Ackerman of Orange County.
Ackerman, who survived an earlier leadership challenge thanks in part to Maldonado's support, last year steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in party funds to Maldonado's campaign account to defend against what was expected to be an aggressive challenge by the Democrats this November.
Not a single Democratic candidate filed, however, even though Democrats account for 40% of the district's registered voters, compared to 36% for the Republicans. Maldonado said he'll return the money.
Mark Buchman of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Party blamed the absence of a challenge on the Senate's top Democrat, Don Perata of Oakland. After Maldonado broke with Senate Republicans on the budget, Perata told The Times he'd "be happy to go down to Santa Maria any time and knock on doors and say what a solid guy he is."
"We actually had a candidate who was willing to run, a good candidate . . . but it fell apart," Buchman said.
Santa Maria City Councilwoman Hilda Zacarias, a Democrat, said Maldonado also was a formidable opponent in the rural district, which runs from northern Santa Barbara County to San Jose. Voters support protecting the coastline, parklands and agricultural interests in the region, regardless of party, she said.
"The community is very moderate as far as the Democratic Party goes and can be very conservative fiscally, no matter what party you belong to," Zacarias said. "I have been actually plenty surprised about what he has supported. He's a Republican who does think about the human factor."
Maldonado's history with the state's senior Republican has been mixed. After losing the GOP primary for state controller, Maldonado lashed out at Schwarzenegger for not supporting him -- even after he campaigned for Schwarzenegger and carried the governor's minimum-wage bill.
"When he needs Latinos, Latinos are always there for him. When Latinos need him, the answer's been 'no,' " Maldonado told The Times after the election. An embarrassed Maldonado later apologized, saying he should have expressed his feelings to the governor in person.
"I regret that," Maldonado said recently, adding: "We've kissed, we've hugged. We've made up."
The senator's father, Abel Maldonado Sr., came to California from the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1964. After working for a few years in the Central Valley, he settled in Santa Maria and joined a cooperative of Latino farmworkers who tended small plots in their off hours.
From there, he built a company, Agro-Jalisco, that now farms more than 2,000 acres of strawberries, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower and employs more than 300 people.
Abel Maldonado Jr. broke into politics when he was 26, running for Santa Maria City Council in 1994 after he grew frustrated by the city's delays in granting the family farm a permit for a cooling facility. He was elected mayor two years later.
Maldonado said his time as mayor reinforced the value of consensus.
"We didn't go into closed session and say, 'Let's pave the streets on the Republican side of town and let's not pave the Democrats' side of town. We paved all the town," he said.
In 2000, George W. Bush invited Maldonado, then a freshman assemblyman, to share his family's story at the Republican National Convention. Maldonado delivered his Spanish-language address an hour before Bush accepted the nomination.
During a recent trip home to Santa Maria, Maldonado spent the day dashing around the district. With his wife and college-age daughter at his side -- he also has three sons -- Maldonado sat down with local state department heads in San Luis Obispo to give an update on the budget.
He launched into his familiar refrain, blaming the gridlock on lawmakers placing party loyalty over the people of California. It's the same partisan divide he feels is the biggest impediment to him winning statewide office.
"I don't know what's in store for me. I hope my party sees me as their future, because there's no secret what California is going to look like in 10 or 15 years," Maldonado said. "The Republican Party is going to have to wake up."
Times staff photographer Al Seib contributed to this report.