The Next Lite Guv

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Abel Maldonado will take the oath of office tomorrow to become California's 47th lieutenant governor. With that, he will make history in one way -- the first Republican* Latino statewide official since 1875 -- while hoping to avoid making history in another way -- possibly being one of the shortest serving 'Lite Guvs' in modern times.

Maldonado chats with reporters after being confirmed as the next 'Lite Guv.'Maldonado won confirmation from his fellow senators this afternoon, the final step on his 154 day odyssey to become second in command, filling the remaining months on the term of John Garamendi, who left Sacramento for Washington, D.C. last year.

But Maldo must soon win the job outright -- first in a June 8 primary and then, if successful, on November 2. Otherwise, he will serve just about eight months, just beating the record of John Harmer who served as LG for just three months and three days in the final months of 1974.

And if he thinks the last four months were tough, just wait.

Love him or hate him, Maldonado's succession to the post certainly seems to merit applause as one of the best played hands of political poker in quite some time. Just roll back the clock to February 2009, when the Santa Maria Republican found himself in the enviable position of being a budget vote that Democrats and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger needed at seemingly all costs.

Now, 14 months later, Maldo gets a statewide post -- the kind of position he's campaigned for before and lost -- and will no doubt instantly become a nationally quoted "leader" of the California Republican Party. That last part will no doubt stick painfully in the craw of many party faithful, who've made it quite clear that the soon-to-be ex-senator is no friend of the GOP faithful.

Still, the jovial Latino lawmaker is clearly the front-runner for his primary, having raised almost a quarter of a million dollars into his Lite Guv campaign account since the start of 2010, far more than challenger and fellow state senator Sam Aanestad. He also becomes the incumbent lieutenant governor, which allows a lot of visibility in his roles -- albeit small roles -- as a UC regent, a CSU trustee, and a member of the California State Lands Commission (that last one is going to be tricky, though).

And, like it or not, Maldonado becomes the symbol of a seemingly shrinking wing of his Republican party in California: a moderate Latino. That, should he win the party primary, would make a fascinating campaign to watch come the fall; after all, it's the very kind of Republican that pundits have said the party needs should it want to be competitive. Can Lt. Governor Maldonado compete with either San Francisco's Gavin Newsom or Los Angeles' Janice Hahn, one with national name ID and the other representing the most vote-rich part of the state?

Plus, Maldonado again today stressed the need for unity between the top two officials in the state and again endorsed the idea of a change in California to create a 'ticket' of a party's governor and lite guv nominees. Speaking to Capitol reporters after the vote, Maldo said not only has he not endorsed either Meg Whitman or Steve Poizner, but that he hasn't been asked.

And on Poizner, the candidate whose tough anti-illegal immigration stance rekindles debates among Republicans about a possible Latino backlash, the first Latino statewide official since Romualdo Pacheco said this: "When you're campaigning, sometimes you go out there and say things that you might regret down the road."

So then he thinks Poizner will regret this strategy, I asked?

"When you go out there and you come up with some, some platitudes to try to win a primary, you're not going to be successful in the general [election]. It's not where California is at."

Add that dynamic to the storyline of the Democratic nominees and who knows what else comes up, and there are some good reasons to watch the pending race for a job that doesn't have a lot of important duties, short of becoming acting governor when Schwarzenegger leaves the state.

But for now, the first generation American and his family are celebrating, and rightly so. The campaign can wait... but given the date on the calendar, not for long.

* NOTE: A typing error on my part originally left out the word "Republican" when saying Maldonado will be the first Latino statewide elected official. A quick reader pointed out that former lite guv Cruz Bustamante is also Latino. Perhaps more coffee will help me. --JM

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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.
  • Shawn Jain

    You state that Maldonado will be the “first Latino statewide official since 1875.” I think you’re forgetting former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

  • John Myers

    You must have not seen the note in italics above.