Maldo Gets The Nod. Now What?

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The guessing game is over, now that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used the most unlikely of platforms -- a national TV talk show -- to announce a political decision that only matters here in California, his choice for lieutenant governor. And even its relevance to Californians may be debatable.

Calling Abel Maldonado "terrific" and "loyal," Schwarzenegger told Jay Leno today that he's given the Central Coast Republican the nod to the next-to-top job in the state, to replace now Rep. John Garamendi as California's next 'Lite Guv.'

The Arnold and Abel show hits the road Wednesday, and from the early spin out of the Schwarzenegger administration, the sales pitch will apparently be focused on the following: Latino...Moderate...Loyal...Bipartisan.

But it's not Californians who the Governor has to convince -- rather, it's the Democrats who control the Legislature. Dems now have 90 days in which they can either confirm or reject Maldonado; no action at all in the time frame would be the same as confirmation. And the decision is going to be a sticky political wicket. Some of the more interesting story lines... for now:

Election 2010: Maldonado is not currently a candidate for the position of lieutenant governor, though everyone now assumes he will take the plunge. And that's a big deal, considering that some have been advocating the LG job be given to someone who would agree to be a 'caretaker' only, leaving it to voters to start fresh in 2010. That was no doubt the preferred plan for the group of soon-to-be-termed out legislators already vying for the job. Let's begin with GOP senators Sam Aanestad and Jeff Denham, neither of whom can be thrilled that the Republican governor has created a de facto frontrunner for the GOP nomination. On the Democratic side, outgoing senators Dean Florez and Alan Lowenthal are already running (outside of the Legislature is a particularly strong Dem candidate, LA city councilwoman Janice Hahn).

The Legislature's Democratic leaders may not like giving a moderate Republican the incumbent designation on next year's ballot; however, Maldo has his work cut out for him if he actually hopes to make it to the general election next November. Most challenging may be the Republican primary, after his role in the February budget deal resulted in not only a large tax increase but a new open primary measure on the June ballot. Those maneuvers may have played well on the larger political stage, but they earned Maldo a lot of brickbats from the party faithful. If the newly appointed LG is going to prevail in his party's primary, it may have to be Schwarzenegger that does the heavy lifting. Which would be interesting, considering...

Abel & Arnold Bury The Hatchet? There will be an awful lot of news stories over the next couple of days that unearth this hard-to-forget quote from the lieutenant governor-designate: "Our governor cares about one thing only, and that's Arnold Schwarzenegger." That was Maldo to the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 2006, not long after he lost the GOP primary for controller. It was a fairly obvious sign of frustration from Maldonado, who could have used the Guv's help in that primary -- especially considering that the senator had carried a number of the administration's legislative proposals, including a hike in the minimum wage that wasn't popular among most Republicans. A few days later Maldonado apologized, but few around the statehouse have ever forgotten this very public spat. Perhaps today's news is a make good from the Guv, three years later.

The Lite Guv's Big Oil Vote: The one policy issue that could actually cause problems for the Arnold-Abel partnership is also the only big item on the plate of the next Lite Guv... oil drilling. More specifically, it's the next round of a debate over whether California should end its four decades-long moratorium on new oil drilling in state waters with a project known as Tranquillon Ridge. The Schwarzenegger administration has made it quite clear that they'd like to see the project move forward, if for no other reason than its projected $100 million quick cash royalty to the bleeding state budget. But when one version of the proposal was attached to the budget this summer, Maldonado voted no. The area in question is not far from his hometown of Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County. The lieutenant governor is one of three members of the State Lands Commission, whose other two members are split on approving the T-Ridge project. One would assume that if Maldo gives any hint that he'll change his mind on the project as lieutenant governor, legislative Dems will torpedo his nomination. Of course, what we don't know is whether Maldo is opposed to the project in principle... or just the version that was debated during the budget.

The Real Political Math = 26: Last but far from least... perhaps, even, most important... is the fact that Maldonado's ascension to Lite Guv would leave a vacancy in his Senate district that stretches from Santa Clara County down to Santa Barbara County. And this is a district the Dems have wanted for a long time. The last official stats show the district's voters as 41% Democratic, 37% Republican, and about 20% non-partisan. Maldo won in 2004 and again (almost unchallenged) in 2008, but if Dems could pick this one up... they'd be at 26 votes in the state Senate, one shy of a two-thirds supermajority that can pass budgets and tax hikes without the GOP. Trouble may be brewing, though, for the Dem dreams... if Assembly GOP Leader Sam Blakeslee were to jump into a special election for the Senate seat that includes his San Luis Obispo home.

No doubt the Dems will put up a strong candidate (some are pushing former assemblymember John Laird of Santa Cruz), but giving Maldo the Lite Guv doesn't necessarily gain the Democrats anything tangible on the biggest political equation of them all. That, plus all the other factors mentioned above, is going to make this saga fun to watch.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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