A political orphan in Sacramento

Abel Maldonado the pariah, the sinner, the traitor, sits across the table at breakfast, banging his fists together.

He’s showing me what Sacramento is like. One clenched fist represents the intransigent Republicans, the other represents the intractable Democrats.

Nothing but knuckleheads.

“It’s horrible,” Maldonado says. “Gridlock.”

Maldonado is the written-off Republican state senator from Santa Maria who committed Original Sin last year, as spelled out in the GOP Bible. With the state headed for financial collapse, he broke ranks and cast the deciding vote for a budget that included temporary tax increases, borrowing and deep service cuts.

For this, Maldonado was pilloried by his fellow Republicans, with the vice chairman of the party warning that the decision would become “an anchor around his political neck.”

Nor have Assembly Democrats, juveniles that they are, rushed to embrace the man who saved their bacon, rejecting Maldonado as Gov. Schwarzenegger’s pick for interim lieutenant governor, even after Senate Democrats took the high road. Sure, the Assembly must have thought, Maldonado voted for the budget last year, but why give a break to a Latino who isn’t a Democrat?

The lieutenant governorship might come back up for another vote in the Assembly. But meanwhile, as a moderate in an institution that scorns, shuns and punishes moderates, Maldonado is a man without a home. It doesn’t matter that moderates are plentiful in both major parties, or that “Decline to State” voters are the fastest-growing part of the electorate. He’s a political orphan.

Maldonado, who comes from an immigrant farm family, was in Los Angeles last week, so I dragged him to breakfast to talk about how unrepresentative, out of touch and dysfunctional Sacramento is.

“It’s 4 in the morning and you’re sleeping under your desk, waiting for the call to vote,” Maldonado said, offering a snapshot of the madness. “We’re sleeping on the floor because we can’t get the job done.”

And why can’t they? For all those reasons you’ve heard before.

Because California districts are drawn to promote political extremes.

Because term limits mean we lose good legislators as well as lousy ones.

Because Democrats are bankrolled by and beholden to public employee unions, and they’ve given away more over the years than we can afford to pay.

And because Republicans are pawns of big business and will beat back any new tax proposal even if it means their own constituents suffer, and even though their Supreme Being -- Ronald Reagan -- raised taxes in times of crisis.

Those are the codes. Compromise is verboten.

“And it’s PERsonal!” said Maldonado, knocking his fists together again.

To his credit, Maldonado got something for his budget vote. In exchange for signing on, he won support from legislative leaders to put an open primary measure on the June ballot. If Proposition 14 passes, the top two vote-getters in an election, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the general election.

On its own, Proposition 14 is but a teaspoon of medicine for a state that needs radical surgery. But Maldonado sees it as a way for moderates in any party to have a better shot, rather than the current closed primary system, which tends to favor candidates who pander to party extremes.

“You know who’s going to oppose 14?” Maldonado asked. “Republicans and Democrats. And I don’t mean the people; I mean the parties.”

No doubt. They’d like to keep things as they are because even though it’s not working for us, it’s working for them.

Voting for a tax increase made Maldonado “an endangered species” within his own party, said Larry Gerston, professor of political science at San Jose State. But Maldonado says he felt like he was making a difficult choice for the right reasons.

“My father has a saying: Tell me who you’re with and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Maldonado decided he was with “the people” rather than with his party bosses. And recent polling suggests he called it right. Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California said two-thirds of voters would be willing to pay higher taxes to support K-12 education.

“The public seems to be aware of the fact that these are difficult times and we have to make tough choices,” Baldassare said.

By the way, Maldonado’s father, a rancher who came to the United States in the bracero program, had to make a choice when he registered to vote.

He went Republican.

But Mom is a Democrat.

“I asked her to re-register to vote for me in the last primary,” Maldonado said.

No way, his mother said. She’d wait till the general and then vote for him.

She’s a Democrat, Maldonado said, because JFK was a Democrat, and because she figured Pope John Paul II and the Virgin Mary would both have registered Democrat.

If they were in the California Assembly, though, where the only true religion is partisan politics, would Mary and the pope have voted to confirm Maldonado for lieutenant governor?