Days after the boyish Abel Maldonado first set foot in the California Assembly, he offered a wide-eyed, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” appraisal of a training program for new legislators.
“I definitely learned a lot,” the freshman Republican told a reporter in 1999. “Especially in the session where the senior members told us how things really work.”
After his recent high-pressure, high-visibility days and nights as the last holdout in the Sacramento budget drama, he can teach a few lessons of his own. In exchange for his reluctant yes to the state’s controversial new budget, the 41-year-old Santa Maria grower demanded a ballot measure allowing open primaries, in which people can vote for candidates regardless of party affiliation. He also was able to fend off a 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase and keep legislators from getting pay raises until they balance the state’s budget.
“He won,” said Jaime Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “His name is recognized throughout the state now. It makes him look like a hero to independents and Democrats who wanted things done.”
That could boost -- or sink -- his chances for the kind of statewide office he has sought before. Some of his party’s leaders are talking about a censure, saying Maldonado’s performance was more selfish than stoic.
“Sen. Maldonado’s vote was decisive in passing the single largest tax increase in American history,” Jon Fleischman, a state GOP vice chairman, said Saturday. “Going forward, Maldonado’s breaking of his promise to fight against tax increases will be an anchor around his political neck.”
In his hometown, the soft-spoken Maldonado’s story is well known.
His father was a bracero who came to the U.S. dirt poor from the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1964. With only a second-grade education, the elder Maldonado worked the fields and grew a major farming operation. The younger Maldonado, chided by other kids for the strawberry stains on his pants, did well enough in school to graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
A few years later, he was so exasperated by red tape in getting city approval for a giant fruit and vegetable cooler for the farm that he successfully ran for City Council at age 26. Two years later, he was Santa Maria’s mayor.
“I tell you, it’s the American story,” said Bobby Acquistapace, a Santa Maria insurance broker whose family has been in the area since 1888. “It’s amazing -- he comes from extremely humble beginnings.”
As if to underscore the point, one of Maldonado’s achievements in local government was to spearhead Santa Maria’s 1998 designation as an All America City -- an honor awarded a number of cities annually by the National Civic League.
“He helped get the community proud of itself,” said Toru Miyoshi, a former Santa Maria mayor who served on the City Council with Maldonado. Miyoshi allowed that Maldonado’s altruism comes with a large helping of ambition.
“From a politician’s standpoint, being on national news is a big plus any way you cut it,” he said.
In 2000, Maldonado was center stage at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, where he gave the first all-Spanish convention speech. Over the years, he has surfaced in the news for occasionally bucking GOP conservatives, as in carrying Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 bill to raise the minimum wage.
But the spotlight has never been as intense as over the last week, when Maldonado crossed party lines with the deciding vote to raise state taxes and deepen state debt at a time of epic layoffs, foreclosures and financial anxiety.
“He’s a hometown guy, and you’d like to think he has our best interests in mind, but we’re talking about packing up and leaving California,” said Mike Farris, an engineer who lives in Los Alamos. “We can’t afford it anymore.”
Farris, who calls himself “a disappointed Republican,” figures Maldonado’s vote will cost him about $1,000 a year in taxes and save him about $6 a month on gas.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that,” he said.
As for the open primary, that still has to be approved by voters and pass muster with the courts, which struck down a short-lived California open-primary system in 2000. After all that, it would probably benefit moderates who can draw both Democrats and Republicans -- candidates like Maldonado, who lost in the 2006 Republican primary for state controller but ran unopposed by Democrats during his reelection campaign for Senate in 2008. He first joined the Senate in 2004.
Maldonado pitched his open-primary demand to Schwarzenegger during a lunch Wednesday at Spataro Restaurant and Bar a couple of blocks from the Capitol.
For several years, their relationship has been strained. In 2006, Maldonado apologized after telling The Times that “our governor cares about one thing only, and that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“When he needs Latinos, Latinos are always there for him,” Maldonado said. “When Latinos need him, the answer’s always been no.”
After Wednesday’s lunch, Schwarzenegger left the restaurant with a grin, saying the meeting was “very nice.” At a news conference the next day, he praised Maldonado and acknowledged that it was difficult for Republicans to vote for tax increases. “It could mean the end of their career,” he said.
Like so many other politicians, each has vowed to pursue reform in state government. For Maldonado, that meant killing a budget provision of nearly $1 million for furnishing the controller’s office, now held by John Chiang, a Democrat who won it in 2006.
“We can’t have pet projects,” Maldonado has said.
A spokesman for the controller has called Maldonado’s demand a publicity stunt that will end up costing the state money. And the senator’s critics say he has his own pet projects, such as a Santa Maria recreation facility built partly with state funds. It is called the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center.
If that fuels the opposition, it wasn’t enough to fire up a Democratic foe last fall.
“I’m just proud of Abel whatever he does,” said longtime community volunteer Tina Tonascia, who helps out with Santa Maria’s annual Elks rodeo and tractor-pull. “What can you say? He’s true blue.”