By the time today's confirmation hearing for Abel Maldonado began, multiple sources had already tipped us off that the GOP senator was going to clear his first hurdle towards becoming lieutenant governor.
But what we didn't know was how emotional the 42-year-old would be, or how often Democrats would seek to push the first generation American on whether his record as a legislator has helped, or hurt, others who aspire to rise from similar meager beginnings.
In other words...it was a budget fight.
Maldonado, on a 4-0 vote of the Senate Rules Committee, now moves on to face a vote of the full Senate as soon as next week. But getting there meant having to bear the brunt of Democratic questions that hinted many of his legislative votes have hurt the state's most vulnerable citizens.
At one point, Maldo was asked by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-LA) how he's able to "straddle" the many contradictions that come with trying to live in the political gray areas between left and right.
"It's not easy," he said matter of factly.
And for today, that's probably what majority Democrats wanted... an acknowledgement from a newly prominent Republican that actions, especially those on budget items, have consequences.
After an emotional beginning (and a voice that trembled nervously throughout), Democrats honed in on asking Maldonado to justify actions that have, in some cases, resulted in large spending cuts on vital services while steadfastly refusing all tax increases before last February. And even then, Maldo demanded that a $2 billion hike in the gas tax be killed before he'd vote for the deficit deal.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg laid out a list of some of the cuts that Democrats say might have been avoided in 2009 -- from job training for poor families to breast cancer screenings, county child welfare social workers, and beyond.
"How do you balance that sort of an impact," said Steinberg, "with the important objective to not hurt people's pocketbooks any more than we have to?"
"It hurts me to cut the safety net," replied Maldonado. But the senator also said that stimulating the economy was, and is, a priority... and that a balanced approach (read: no more taxes) is important.
"It was the best thing we could do," said the nominee about the 2009 budget deal. To which the Senate leader shot back: "I believe we could've done a little better."
And then there was this from Steinberg: "What's missing is a debate about the cost of those decisons versus other decisions."
Maldonado was also pushed for an opinion on a Democratic plan for a new 3% withholding requirement on independent contractors ("something we ought to look at," said Maldo); his position on Governor Schwarzenegger's $20 billion deficit solution (said he thinks the economy will surprise everyone this spring); additional tuition hikes at UC and CSU campuses ("I don't see how anyone" can pay more, he said); and a plan he once co-authored to allow undocumented immigrant students to pay resident tuition (times were better and the state had money back then, said Maldo).
Maldonado also told the committee he opposes efforts to allow the state budget to be passed on a simple majority vote.
Almost all of this, it should be noted, focuses on the nuts and bolts of what legislators do, not the lieutenant governor (with higher ed being an exception, given the LG serves as a UC regent).
And while budget positioning in the public's mind is the most logical reason all of this came up, it's not crazy to consider something else: a lieutenant governor may not deal with these issues, but another top elected official does... a job into which Maldonado may be asked to step.
"We all know," said Steinberg, "the lieutenant governor can become governor."
The Republican line of questioning came from only one committee member, Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) because the other Reep on the dais -- Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) -- will be Maldonado's opponent in the June lieutenant governor primary, and decided to recuse himself from talking and voting in today's hearing. Dutton only asked a few questions about the economy, and later said while he probably only agrees with Maldo "50% of the time," he would nonetheless vote to send the nomination to the full Senate.
That Republican reluctance is likely to grow only louder in the days leading up to a formal confirmation vote, with staunch conservatives calling Maldo out on just about everything -- especially last year's vote to raise taxes.
Several sources say Maldonado's confirmation chances in the full Senate are looking good, though nothing in politics is a certainty. But the real question may be what about the Assembly? They, too, can reject a nominee by a simple majority vote. And in the larger lower house, Maldonado needs twice as many supporters if he wants to pack his boxes and move down to that vacant office on the Capitol's first floor.