Soulmates Arnold & Abel, Soul Searching For Dems

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Let the political handwringing begin.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lieutenant Governor-designate Abel Maldonado made their big debut this morning at an event in Los Angeles, with the Guv calling Maldo his "soulmate," and the GOP senator offering an almost tearful thank you amidst a recounting of his immigrant family's path to the American Dream.

But now what? What are Maldonado's odds of getting the thumbs up or thumbs down from legislative Democrats who are in complete control of what happens next?

The "soulmate" quip came from Schwarzenegger in response to a reporter asking about not-so-warm-and-fuzzy times between the two men in the past. "The more I got to know him," gushed the Guv, "the more I got to really like what he stood for."

But are the two really soulmates? Take, for example, Schwarzenegger's push for a landmark state law on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. AB 32 was -- and is -- a huge priority for the Governor, but his "soulmate" Maldonado voted against the bill when it came to the Senate floor in August 2006. And, as blogged yesterday, the senator voted against Schwarzenegger's oil drilling proposal this year. These are only two examples and, while alone don't constitute a pattern, nonetheless make for interesting speculation about what a Lt. Governor Maldonado's priorities would be vis-a-vis the chief executive.

Today also marks the first formal reaction from Democratic legislative leaders who, under the California Constitution, hold all the cards for Maldo getting the job. Some are playing their cards close to the vest... others are hinting that they've got the high hand and the Guv is going to lose.

Count Assembly Speaker Karen Bass among those with a steely poker face this morning. "I haven't always seen eye to eye with Senator Maldonado," said Bass in an emailed statement, "but we have also worked well together at other times. The Assembly will give this nomination the full and fair consideration it deserves."

On the other side of the poker table, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is hinting, not so subtly, that Maldo might want to wait before moving his things downstairs into the Lite Guv's office. "Senator Maldonado is a fine colleague," said Steinberg in his email statement, "but I have grave doubts about filling this position with any sitting elected official."

The pro Tem goes on to say that the problem lies in the cost of a special election to fill Maldonado's Central Coast Senate seat, a cost he says could be $2 million. "Rather than using taxpayer money to pay for an avoidable election," he said, "it may be wiser to use that $2 million to defray recent fee increases in our higher education system."

The not-so-subtle message: the Maldonado Show is a luxury the state can't afford.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen seemed to be making the same point in a Twitter posting this morning, and reminded everyone that there could be more than one special election -- if Assembly GOP Leader Sam Blakeslee opted to run for Maldonado's seat, thus leaving another vacancy to be filled.

And Assemblymember Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), whose home lies just south of the LG-designate's Santa Maria stomping grounds, took it one step further, arguing that leaving the position vacant would save the state another $1 million in budgeted office expenses for a lieutenant governor. "The Governor should have used this opportunity to set an important example and show that every dollar counts," said the emailed statement from Nava.

If all of that sounds like Democrats prepping for a smackdown of the Maldonado nomination, then consider a different group of Dems loudly demanding that legislative leaders give the GOP moderate the job, precisely because it might trigger a special election, one that could be won by a Democrat and landing the party one vote away from a Senate supermajority that could solve budget problems on its own.

The editors of the liberal blog Calitics put it this way in an "open letter" to legislative leaders:

Calitics has been a strong critic of Abel Maldonado. He is certainly not our first, second, or seventy-third choice for the Lt. Gov. office. But we are willing to swallow it for the greater good. You need to do so as well.

There is no credible reason to refuse to confirm Maldonado. The only reason you would be doing so is by placing the ambitions of other Senators above your own, and above the needs of a state facing a crisis so deep and so crippling that it threatens much more than Republican control of the Lt. Gov. office.

A spokesman for the Senate pro Tem said today that confirmation hearings won't begin until January. The 90-day clock on the nomination, having formally begun today, should expire on Monday, February 22. And until both houses decide whether to approve, reject, or let Maldonado take office without a vote... the Soulmate #2 will remain in his current job, and Soulmate #1 will be searching for ways to seal the deal.

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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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