Congratulations, Abel Maldonado -- but history says you’re doomed


California can finally stop holding its collective breath: We have a lieutenant governor-designate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on Monday’s “Jay Leno Show” that he was appointing state Sen. Abel Maldonado to the job vacated by now-U.S. Rep. John Garamendi.

A moderate coastal Republican legislator -- pretty much by himself in that category -- and the only Republican Latino in either house of the Legislature, Maldonado is a smart and courageous solon with a compelling personal story.

But before he starts plotting his career as the governor’s understudy, Maldonado might want to familiarize himself with the recent history of appointed statewide officials. The “power” of appointed incumbency is limited: In the last 50 years, all but two people appointed to statewide office lost in their attempts to win the job in a subsequent election.

The most recent victim of this phenomenon was erstwhile Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, also a bright and decent guy and another moderate coastal Republican. He too got there courtesy of a Schwarzenegger appointment -- in 2005, when then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a Democrat, resigned. McPherson was defeated when he ran for the office in 2006 by Democratic state Sen. Debra Bowen from Torrance, who was running statewide for the first time.

In 1991, newly sworn-in Gov. Pete Wilson tapped his friend and bland soul mate, John Seymour, a state senator and former mayor of Anaheim, to assume Wilson’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Seymour was creamed in 1992 by Dianne Feinstein, who became the first woman from California to be sworn-in to the world’s most exclusive club.

In 1989, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Tom Hayes, the perfectly competent state auditor general, to the position of treasurer after the death of longtime Treasurer and former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh. Kathleen Brown crushed Hayes in 1990.

In 1974, Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed state Sen. John Harmer to be lieutenant governor, in lieu of Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, who resigned after getting himself snagged in the Watergate scandal. Harmer was already the Republican nominee for the office, having won the GOP primary earlier in the year, but he was knocked off that fall by Democrat Mervyn Dymally, the first African American elected to partisan statewide office in California history.

In the summer of 1964, Gov. Pat Brown named former JFK Press Secretary Pierre Salinger to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate caused by the unexpected death of Democrat Clair Engle. In November of that year, despite President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory (including in California), the high-profile Salinger got trounced by a retired tap dancer who had never run for office before, George Murphy.

Only Reinecke, appointed lieutenant governor by Reagan in 1969 and elected in his own right in 1970, and Thomas Lynch, appointed attorney general by Pat Brown in 1964 and elected in 1966, escaped this pattern. So next year it will have been 40 years since an appointed statewide official was elected to the office for which he had been tapped.

In 2000, Gov. Gray Davis appointed respected former judge Harry Low as insurance commissioner, replacing Republican Chuck Quackenbush, who resigned one step ahead of impeachment. As Davis’ senior political advisor, I hoped Low would run in 2002 so we would have an Asian American on the Democratic ticket for the first time since 1990. But looking at the sorry history of appointed officials running for their offices, and the difficulty of raising money to run for such an obscure regulatory post, Low opted out.

Of course, there’s another precedent Maldonado should be mindful of too, because his appointment must be confirmed by both the state Senate and Assembly (and three members of the Senate have already announced plans to run for lieutenant governor). In 1987, when state Treasurer Unruh died, Deukmejian first appointed another young, ambitious coastal Republican to the job, Rep. Dan Lungren of Long Beach. The Democrat-controlled Senate refused to confirm him -- and thus help him along in his transparent intentions to have a career in statewide office. That’s when Hayes got the nod. After his rejection, Lungren went on to become a two-term California attorney general and now again serves in the House of Representatives.

So welcome (maybe) to the lieutenant governor’s office, Abel. But my advice would be, don’t get too comfy.

Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist and commentator who ran Gray Davis’ campaigns for lieutenant governor in 1994 and governor in 1998 and 2002.