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A tricky place for Maldonado

Capitol Journal

In a reverse of the norm, a party’s candidate for lieutenant governor is in good position to help the gubernatorial nominee win election.

But the question is, why should he? It could be risky for No. 2 — being caught up in the middle of a nasty fight between the two gubernatorial rivals. What’s in it for him?

Not a lot.

Baggage-toting Meg Whitman received a huge gift when Republican voters nominated maverick Abel Maldonado for lieutenant governor to run against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

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Maldonado already was lieutenant governor, having been appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill a vacancy. But for a long time, there was serious doubt about whether the centrist former lawmaker could survive a Republican primary.

After all, he voted for a tax increase last year to save the state from insolvency, and party ideologues branded him a “traitor.”

There’s also that Latino surname. No Republican Latino has won statewide office in California in 139 years, not since Romualdo Pacheco, a San Luis Obispo County rancher and state senator, was elected lieutenant governor. Maldonado also is a San Luis Obispo County farmer and former state senator.

“His claim to fame was that he rode a horse in a parade with no shirt on,” Maldonado says, laughing. Pacheco also ascended to the governorship briefly.

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But back to the present.

Whitman got yanked to the right during her primary scuffle with Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who began his political career as a calm centrist but transformed into a raving wing nut in a failed strategy to become the GOP gubernatorial nominee.

Although Whitman never became as demagogic as Poizner on illegal immigration, the grating tone of the debate surely alienated many Latinos who might have been thinking about voting Republican in November.

Whitman also did her own tapping into anger over illegal immigration. She proposed to ban all illegal immigrants from attending community colleges or state universities. In other words, it’s fine to educate them for low-rung jobs, but none that pays decently.

Whitman also was pressured by Poizner into renouncing her previous support for comprehensive immigration reform, including amnesty.

Latinos, of course, are the fastest-growing ethnic group in California.

Even in the last gubernatorial election, 2006, they accounted for 19% of the total vote, based on one exit poll. Republican Schwarzenegger received 39% of that 19%.

Whitman strategists and Republican partisans are excited about Maldonado being on the ticket so the fluent Spanish-speaking lieutenant governor can tag along with the gubernatorial candidate in Latino communities and Hispanic TV studios. They can appear jointly in Spanish-language TV ads and make side-by-side public appearances.

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Maldonado also could attract “decline to state” voters, or independents. He ought to be their hero. It was Maldonado, in exchange for his budget-tax vote, who forced the open primary measure onto last week’s ballot. Starting in 2012, independents and everyone else will be able to vote for any candidate they want in the primary, regardless of party.

Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds has said that Whitman and Maldonado will spend “a healthy amount of time” together on the campaign trail.

But it could be very dangerous out there on the trail: Democrat Jerry Brown firing cannon shots at Whitman, and Whitman answering back with her unlimited millions.

By November, neither Whitman nor Brown will be particularly popular and the contest probably will be won by the candidate whom voters detest least.

But Maldonado has a solid image. He’s respected, except by the political fringes. He’s young, 42, with a bright future. He’s arguably the strongest Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in at least 32 years, maybe 44.

And — unlike the controversial former EBay chief Whitman, who rarely bothered to vote until recently — Maldonado has a warm personal story: the son of an immigrant bracero, he grew up working the fields with his family. Now they farm their own 6,000 acres.

And far from ignoring the voting booth, Maldonado has long been politically active. He ran for city council in his 20s because he couldn’t obtain a building permit from a lethargic local bureaucracy. Then he became mayor, and after that a state assemblyman.

Why should this perpetually upbeat man get caught up in the vicious crossfire between Whitman and Brown?

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Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson, says Whitman could provide Maldonado “stature” by assuring him a specific role in her administration. Something like being the leader on pension reform or rooting out waste.

But history shows that if it’s not the governor’s personal project, she’s unlikely to spend much political capital on it. And a lieutenant governor has no capital.

Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant, says: “Abel cannot afford to tick off Meg Whitman. He doesn’t want to alienate Republican groups by appearing too aloof. He has to hold onto the Republican base.”

Hoffenblum adds: “I think Abel can win even if she doesn’t. But she can’t get blown out of the water. He needs her to run strong.”

I asked Maldonado. He didn’t want to comment about whether he should or should not get in the middle, saying only: “I’m running for lieutenant governor as myself. People are going to vote for me, not for someone else. And my message isn’t going to change from the primary.”

And that message? “We need to start growing California instead of focusing on growing parties. Put partisan bickering and politics aside. Focus on creating jobs.”

Good message.

Maldonado should support Whitman, but from a safe distance. And especially don’t start taking sniper shots at Brown. They could backfire.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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