California Assembly confirms Abel Maldonado’s nomination as lieutenant governor

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nominee to fill the vacant lieutenant governor’s office cleared his last significant hurdle Thursday, apparently ending a drawn-out political ordeal that had become emblematic of Sacramento’s partisan gridlock.

State Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) was approved by the Assembly on Thursday and faces a second confirmation vote Monday in the state Senate, but the upper house approved him once before, in February, and is not expected to vote against him now.

Maldonado, who gained notoriety by crossing party lines to vote with majority Democrats for the state budget last year, had to navigate a political minefield of fellow Republicans who called him a traitor for agreeing to tax increases and Democrats bent on denying him the advantage of incumbency in November’s election.

Through it all, the relentlessly upbeat former farmer brushed on the TV makeup, kept his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly coiffed and stayed meticulously on message. “I believe California is a great state,” he offered at almost every interview and confirmation hearing.

The lieutenant governor post was left empty when Democrat John Garamendi was elected to Congress late last year. Even though the office is generally viewed as a ceremonial backwater in state government, Maldonado’s road to confirmation has not been easy.

After the Senate voted to confirm him in February, the Assembly failed to reach a clear majority in favor of him. Schwarzenegger renominated him, and the process began again.

This time, Maldonado had the support of Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), who had not yet assumed the leadership post in February.

“He’s the one who put me over the top, and I can never thank him enough for that,” Maldonado said after Thursday’s Assembly vote.

In recent weeks, Republicans have complained that Perez was delaying a vote on Maldonado, which could have been held earlier, to boost the Democrats’ chances of taking over his seat in the Senate. Had Maldonado been fully confirmed before April 23, the special election to replace him would have been held in phases this summer: first a primary and then, more than likely, a runoff.

If he receives final confirmation next week, the primary will still be held this summer, but Schwarzenegger can choose to hold the runoff Nov. 2, the date of the general election, when a higher voter turnout is expected. Democrats typically prefer their chances in a high-turnout election.

Perez spokeswoman Shannon Murphy dismissed the criticism, saying the new speaker simply had more important things to do. “Two months ago, there was concern that the priority needed to be jobs and reform,” she said, adding that the extra time gave Maldonado an opportunity to build his case with Assembly members, who voted 51 to 21 in his favor Thursday.

If confirmed, Maldonado would take seats on the boards overseeing California’s public university systems and on the state Lands Commission. At a hearing this week, he said his first question to university administrators would be why they decided to impose an historic 32% increase in student fees.

“Did you cut 32% from top management?” he promised to ask. “Or was [raising fees] just the easiest thing to do?”

Maldonado supports a bill that would force university foundations — nonprofit entities that raise money for schools through private donations and campus businesses such as bookstores — to open their financial information to public scrutiny.

“Campuses are public trusts,” Maldonado said in an interview Thursday. “Even if it’s a private foundation, if it’s on a campus, we should disclose.”

A foundation at Cal State Stanislaus recently hired former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to speak at a school fundraiser. The foundation president has refused to say how much Palin is being paid.