SACRAMENTO — It seemed like a fairly good idea at the time — the idea of Abel Maldonado running for governor.
He wasn’t going to win. But neither would he be a Republican embarrassment.
There was no Republican in sight with even a faint chance of beating Gov. Jerry Brown next year.
Amend that. There was no credible challenger preparing to take on the Democratic incumbent, period.
The moderate Maldonado, 45, from Santa Maria — a former mayor, legislator and lieutenant governor — seemed credible. This despite his just having lost a congressional race and, before that, being tossed out of the lieutenant governor’s office by Democrat Gavin Newsom.
Maldonado is likable, energetic and he tells a compelling American Dream story. His immigrant parents came here as field hands and wound up building a ranching empire.
He’s part of a fast-growing ethnic group whose voters have been shunning the GOP. If he ran on the high road, avoiding the gutter, he could help his party and position himself for an encore race when Brown is forced out by term limits in 2018.
Certainly he could carry the GOP banner and pass the laugh test.
That’s what many Republican pols privately were saying and what I wrote three months ago. So it was painful to read about Maldonado’s first big warm-up event.
It took place recently on the wind-swept top of a Sacramento city garage, a site chosen because it offered a nice background shot of the Capitol dome. That’s a little cornball, but no worse than the incessant so-called news conferences held on Capitol steps.
It would have been OK except for the monster mug shot of an ugly-looking, bearded black guy that Maldonado hauled out for the cameras. It was reminiscent of the odorous Willie Horton ad that George H.W. Bush slung at Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign.
Horton was a bearded black murderer who raped a pregnant white woman and tortured her husband while on furlough from Dukakis’ prison system.
The fellow shown by Maldonado is Jerome Anthony Rogers, 57, who is accused of murdering an elderly San Bernardino woman — he has pleaded not guilty — and who is carrying a long rap sheet that includes robbery, rape and sodomizing a 14-year-old girl.
Maldonado used Rogers as an example of bad guys walking the street under what he calls Brown’s “early release” program. Basically, the program — which the governor calls “realignment” — involves placing some felons under county control. Previously, they’d have been locked up in state prisons. But Brown is under a federal court order to greatly reduce the prison population.
Only one problem with the Rogers example: None of his crimes, as pointed out by Times reporter Paige St. John, can be connected to the governor’s controversial program, whatever it’s called. He has never been released early, even from a local jail.
Maldonado is stumping the state to repeal Brown’s program. But Rogers is not a legitimate example of why it should be repealed.
Some Democrats accused Maldonado of racism. That’s nonsense. He’s no racist. In fact, he also displayed some blown-up mugs of bad white guys. Maldonado’s sin was sloppy research and, perhaps, trite politics.
“It was very predictable, from an old playbook,” lamented one Republican consultant, who didn’t want to be identified because he’s a friend of Maldonado.
It was not a good first impression among the only people who may have been paying attention: the political community, including potential campaign donors. There was a lot of eye-rolling and wincing.
His chief strategist is supposed to be John Weaver, a national heavyweight and former advisor to Republican presidential contender John McCain. “I’m glad Abel did what he did: highlighting Brown’s failed policy,” Weaver told me.
But I doubt Weaver had anything to do with the event.
This is what can happen in a minimally staffed, low-budget campaign.
I called some GOP consultants and asked how he could repair the damage.
“Go out there and don’t act like a Republican,” said one, who didn’t want to be identified knocking his own party. “We’ve all seen this [anti-crime] narrative. It’s like watching episodes of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ for the 20th year. It’s really bad political theater.”
This strategist thinks Maldonado should push education reform and denounce Brown’s proposal to spend more money on inner-city schools at the expense of the suburbs.
One consultant who didn’t mind being quoted on the record was Ray McNally, a Maldonado ally. “Honestly,” he said “I’d recommend that Abel take a very hard look at what the situation is and how big a hill he has to climb and whether or not he can climb it. He might want to pass on this one.”
McNally, however, believes it is possible to beat Brown with the right candidate. Yes, and just who would that be? Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he answered, admittedly fantasizing. “The chances of her running are about zero.”
Rice loves her life in Stanford academia.
Out of curiosity, McNally matched Rice against Brown in a recent statewide poll. The result: Brown 54%, Rice 46% — a potentially competitive race.
Maldonado hasn’t disqualified himself. But he needs to run a smarter campaign, one that’s more imaginative and substantive. If he’s going to rail against crime, he should also address some root causes. Advocate more drug courts, education opportunities and mental health treatment — better rehab.
Say, “I screwed up.” Laugh at himself.
“Abel is able to make things fun,” he told me, referring tongue-in-cheek to his misguided garage event.
That’s a good start.